Scenery vs. Tactics

Is it worth it to “speed up” a course at the expense of historic landmarks and cultural sights?

It was a typical Thursday night in the Solera home.  My wife and I had invited a couple of friends to the apartment and we were watching choice episodes of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation while enjoying pizza and a sampler pack of craft beers.  We had cycled through several episodes, often speaking over them because we knew them already by heart and could afford to break out into spontaneous conversation without ruining any of the thousand perfectly-timed zingers.

Although we were watching highly-regarded and universally appealing comedies, I also wanted to watch the Dubai Marathon, which was streaming live on the internet.  Known for its generous prize money and time incentives, the race has reliably produced some of the fastest times in the world in recent years.  And yet despite the attractive lure, this is a race that hasn’t featured a big-name, top ranked athlete since Haile Gebrselassi’s three victories between 2008 and 2010.  Unlike the World Marathon Majors, it never draws the most visible athletes but still produces fast times, usually thanks to talented newcomers and debutants hungry for its $200,000 first place prize.

But rather than subject my friends to the agony of watching a sport they don’t enjoy (especially one where very little actually happens until the last twenty minutes), I flipped open a laptop and set it next to me while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continued on TV with their reliable parade of hilarious one-liners.  Every now and then I would sneak a quick glance at the computer to see if I had missed a strategic breakaway or if the race had taken an aggressive turn.

Despite the athletes’ legs moving at an impressive rate, I couldn’t help but feel like they weren’t actually going anywhere.  Every time I looked at the screen, I saw the same image, as if the feed were on loop.  Whenever the broadcast would switch between the male lead pack to the first females, I swore they couldn’t have been within a block of each other.  They simply kept running on the same stretch of road.  While sets and characters on TV would change, the top runners on my laptop, most of whom were Ethiopian, seemed to be stuck on a giant treadmill.  The whole thing seemed ripped right out of a Twilight Zone episode.

Eventually 18-year old Tsegaye Mekonnen Asefa broke free from the lead pack and broke the junior world record for the marathon by finishing in an astounding 2:04:32.  Five years ago that would have made him the fourth fastest marathoner of all-time; today he has to settle for eleventh.  While his performance was incredible and Dubai once again delivered a slew of fast times, I was more focused on how boring the race seemed.  While the race contained its fair share of professional marathon hallmarks – the fast initial 5K split, the lead pack jockeying for position, the eventual thinning and final breakaway – it didn’t feel like the race really took them anywhere.

The reason for this is because the course is as simple as it can possibly get.

Taking a play from the Carlsbad 5000’s playbook, the Dubai Marathon’s course was changed this year to a long out-and-back along the coastline on Jumeirah Beach Road.  It is literally an incredibly long “T” shape with only the start and finish lines jutting from the road.  That’s it.

2014 Dubai Marathon Course Map

2014 Dubai Marathon Course Map

The minute I saw that, I realized why it seemed like nothing was different every time I looked at the live feed.  It wasn’t like watching the Chicago Marathon, which ushers runners in and out of the city three different times; or the New York City Marathon which proudly escorts the largest marathon field ever assembled through its five unique boroughs; or the LA Marathon’s “Stadium to the Sea” tour of the city.  Even if watching twenty East Africans run for a little over two hours isn’t your idea of fun, some of these broadcasts offer a compelling and diverse profile of historic cities.

But Dubai’s cameramen showed none of that.  Buoyed by the prestige of becoming the next world record course, organizers decided to change the course to allow for the fastest times possible.  But in doing so, I believe they may have sacrificed too much.

In recent decades the sport has exploded.  It is no longer the hobby of a deranged sliver of athletes but a worldwide phenomenon.  Friday morning, over 20,000 runners crossed the finish line in Dubai, all but a handful vying for a world’s best.  While I want to assume that the majority of those were proud of their accomplishments and wore the medal proudly, I’m confident that a large number were also disappointed with the simplicity of the course.  Is it really worth it to cater to the top 3 runners at the expense of denying the remaining 19,997 a diverse and engaging path?

It’s been said many times before that running a successful marathon requires a strong body but also a sound mind.  Many runners try to divide the 26.2-mile race into smaller, less intimidating pieces in order to cope with the challenge without bluntly acknowledging the insanely long distance.  However, if the entire ordeal is one seemingly interminable stretch followed by another one, this mental game loses its pieces.  A change of scenery can invigorate tired runners and something as simple as a turn can add an extra jolt to their speed.  Even Boston, which is technically a “straight” line from Hopkington to Boylston Street, has its turns and hills.

I’ve never been to Dubai, but the city has had its fair share of publicity in the last ten years.  Though the course as it was run on Friday runs past the famous Burj Al Arab and likely sports a view of the Burj Khalifa (then again, with its height I’m sure you can see it from pretty much anywhere), the view from my couch didn’t provide the typical city-tour that I’ve come to expect.  In my head, the perfect layout would escort runners along Jumeirah Beach Road, pass the Burj Al Arab, circumvent the Burj Khalifa on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard and even enter the trilobite-shaped archipelago known as the Palm Jumeirah.  It would be a great way to showcase a new city playing on the global stage.

But I doubt that’s possible.  The more I thought about it, I started to suspect that this was probably the best the organizers could design, even if they weren’t solely focused on engineering a fast course.  I’m sure this has to do with Dubai’s complex infrastructure, which includes a lot of onramps, thick highways and broad swaths of projects mid-development.  But when you sign up for a city’s namesake marathon, you expect a certain degree of sightseeing to go along with the depletion of glycogen.  Marathons aren’t just about notching fast times; they can be a vehicle to enjoy the world around us.  Paris starts on the Champs-Élysées, London ends at Buckingham Palace, New York in Central Park, all before winding through their own cities in almost unpredictable fashion.  And despite not being a perfectly straight and flat line like Dubai, all of these races have very fast course records below 2:06.

Maybe this has just been an overly long and petulant complaint about the race only appearing boring on TV for those of us who didn’t shell out the big bucks to fly to the Arabian Peninsula.  But there is a discussion to be had here: if your favorite race offered you the chance to alter the course, would you prefer to pull it to unique landmarks or would you remove a few turns to help you secure that shiny new PR?  Let’s word that differently:

Do you expect to see famous monuments when you sign up for expensive, big city races?  Are there any prestigious races that have surprised you, for better or worse, with their course?  If you had the money, would you run the Dubai Marathon, even though the path is straight-as-an-arrow?

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

23 Responses to Scenery vs. Tactics

  1. tootallfritz says:

    I’m pretty boring, I like to stay close to home so these big name races don’t tug much at me to run them. However, I do like the diversity of several big name courses and I may have thrown my name in the hat for a particularly diverse (windy and chilly too!) course in November. 🙂

    I’m going to go back and read your Little Rock report. That’s next up for me. I’m nowhere near in marathon shape but I’ve heard so much about it that I decided to register in the last few minutes before the sell out. I’m guessing your report is going to say that is hard as heck and super hilly and that I shouldn’t tackle it at this state of my fitness. LOL!!

    • Dan says:

      Ha, I would never tell anyone their fitness isn’t up to par — especially someone like you, who had a very impressive 2013! Little Rock has one gradual hill between miles 14 and 16 and then one last gruesome climb right at mile 25. But by then you can smell the finish line, so you just power through it. But the race is really fun and the city really comes out to support the runners, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Chris M says:

    I am 100% in the ‘show me something’ camp and don’t mind about how fast the course is. I have only one marathon to my name but have run more than a few half marathons. The courses that highlight the place I’m racing in are definitely my favorites and course scenery certainly factors into my decision whether or not I’ll enter a race.

    • Dan says:

      It’s funny, because the words “flat and fast” definitely motivate me to sign up. But once I’m aboard, I lean toward the “show me something” camp very quickly, and will even get upset if they show me nothing. It’s like wanting your cake and eating it too — in marathons it’s possible to have both, and when that happens, it can be magical. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. I like to enter races that have some appeal, and if I travel for a big city marathon then I always pick ones with nice or special routes. Last year I went to Athens to run the classic marathon. This March, I’ll be heading to Rome, which is said to be an amazing route passing countless momuments and landmarks. Although Rome is also a fast and flat course, I’m not going to aim for a fast time – I’m going to enjoy the scenery!

    • Dan says:

      I’ve heard great things about the Maratona di Roma and would love to run it one day. In fact, I’d love to run pretty much ANY race in a large, famous European city. Every step is guaranteed to be steeped in a rich history that few continents can match. It’s precisely because almost any route will provide you with a scenic tour of a beautiful city that I so desperately want to run races in your area of the world.

      Thanks for your thoughts 🙂

  4. I’ve often said that running a race is a great way to experience a city. Chicago, Boston, Houston, St. Louis, Louisville… I’ve seen and experienced these areas in a way I never could otherwise and I would hope cities continue to feature themselves through their courses.

    • Dan says:

      I wonder if marathon organizers ever partner-up with the local or state board of tourism to promote the event. It is, after all, a great way to introduce out-of-towners to a city, not just for a 26.2-mile jaunt but for anyone thinking about spending a future vacation or even moving there. I know I’ve left several cities with a very high opinion of it thanks to the race course and the people who organized it.

  5. Jen says:

    I would only travel to (and pay for) a big city marathon for the sights. There are enough marathons now that if I wanted just to run for speed, I’d pick a flat one close by and call it a day.

    Sort of related – before my Taiwan trip last fall, I did a quick search for races in Taipei, which led me to researching marathons there. There’s one marathon that just goes back and forth over the same stretch of highway – I forget how many times. It’s insane! Plus the Marathon Guide reviews were horrible — apparently, there was very little support and few spectators on the course. The Taroko Gorge Marathon, however, looks amazing.

    • Dan says:

      I love that distance runner’s affliction — you can’t go anywhere without first seeing if there’s a local race. That started with me back in 2009 when I found a 10k near out hotel in Newport Beach, and has since expanded to pretty much ANYWHERE I go. In fact, I’m often disappointed when we leave town and there aren’t any races to run. But that just means I get to sleep in and see my friends and family for more time, etc. etc. …

      But you can bet your bottom dollar that the next time I take a vacation across an ocean, I’ll make sure I can add a new country to the map 🙂

      • Jen says:

        I know! This was my first time actually researching races before a trip, and was a major indication of my addiction/commitment to running. 😉 Unfortunately, I did my research only days before leaving, and most of the races had either sold out or stopped their registration process a week out (apparently, the Taiwanese disapprove of race day registration?).

  6. Amy says:

    I think this is the biggest issue I have with our “Duke City” Marathon…it fails to actually showcase the Duke City! You spend almost the entire race running a straight line on a bike path sheltered by large cottonwood trees (I can only stand to do 1-2 runs per training cycle on this path because the monotony is maddening). But yes, if I’m paying $120+ to “tour” a city, I would appreciate seeing some landmarks, or at the very least not be taken to the uglier parts of town. I think the reason I always wanted Chicago to be my first was because of the course.

    • Dan says:

      Chicago is the best race ever, doesn’t matter where you’re from, so yeah, you were perspicacious in your choice. And glad you warned me on Duke City because I was between that one and Shiprock for my NM race. Though I do expect Shiprock to be monotonous in the sense that I’m sure very little will change during the actual run, there’s something about running in the desert that I love, so I’m willing to tolerate the constant landscape.

  7. I would prefer an interesting marathon course over a boring fast course any day, but I do tend to shy away from hilly ones when I’m looking for a certain time. I hate false advertising too when it’s a “scenic” course but it’s only the finish that is scenic. The rest is a highway overlooking fields. BOOORRRINNNNGGGG. I am hoping to take on some hilly and more challenging courses over the next few years just to do something different.

    • Dan says:

      Ha, false advertising can be such a bitch, especially when it’s a matter of relativity. If a race in Colorado advertises its “gently rolling hills” then you’re definitely due for a backbreaking slog. After so many races you become a stickler for details – like having an ACTUAL elevation chart instead of connecting the dots between mile markers with straight lines. And while sometimes it’s inevitable, I do agree that having just “pockets” of scenery in a race isn’t worth it.

      As for tackling hilly and challenging courses, sometimes the most scenic ones require difficult stretches. Best of luck! Sorry for this rambling response.

  8. Mike says:

    Wow, that Dubai course looks really awful, I had no idea. Given their sky’s-the-limit ambitions there, I’d expect the race organizers in the next several years to bring in a fleet of bulldozers, flatten out all the city’s hills and design a more scenic course with a Berlin-like elevation profile. In any case, given my sub-elite status, I’d vote that there are far more appealing races in Asia than Dubai.

    Like you I generally eschew the Rock ‘n’ Roll series, but this is a strong argument in favor of their glossy, highly produced events – they do a nice job of showcasing the city in which they’re run. And for that reason alone I can appreciate their races. I’m with Jeff on this one, there’s no better way to tour a city than on foot through its streets, sans traffic concerns. Realistically, how many hours of driving/walking/riding the El would it take to cover all the ground that the Chicago marathon route covers in 3½ hours? Runners get to see so much of the city, which then frees up time to visit the Field Museum, check out the Shedd, stroll along the lake… so many options. Same goes for other big-city marathons, L.A. among them. I wouldn’t expect too many race directors to follow Dubai’s example any time soon.

    PRs are great and I’ll keep working to improve mine, but as they say, speed kills – and in running it generally kills enjoyment of the surroundings. If I PR in Berlin then sure I’ll love the course, but I guarantee I won’t soak it all in, and certainly not the way someone running an hour behind me will. Unfortunately, since Berlin’s not my local race I’ll likely have only one shot, so I’ll have to make the best of it. But barring a chance at a BQ, I’ll happily take the scenic/historic/ass-kicking course every time. I’ve already started debating how I want to run NYC in November… pedal to the medal? Or at a comfortable pace, to soak up as much five-boroughs ambience as possible? Likewise, I’m sure that when I eventually make it to Orlando, I’ll be posing with every Disney character along that route.

    And I can’t sign off without saying WOW, a 2:04:32 at age 18?? I suppose we should keep an eye on young Tsegaye Mekonnen Asefa, shouldn’t we?

    • Mike says:

      Ha ha, do I have racing on the brain… I believe that should be “pedal to the metal”. Or maybe I was being clever and didn’t even know it…

      • Dan says:

        I will definitely concede that the RNR series does a great job of running their races straight through the city. While the Expo and the registration process may all be Race-in-a-Box, the actual courses themselves rarely spare an expense. In fact, it’s the only half marathon in Chicago that actually enters the city and doesn’t take place in a public bikepath or 4 miles south of the city, where the skyscrapers just barely manage to poke up from the horizon.

        The thing with Berlin is that it (along with Chicago) seems to hit all the beats: fast, flat, historic, touristic, highly spectated, prestigious and held in typically perfect weather conditions. But outside of the Majors (and sub-Majors like Paris), you often have to choose between fast or scenic. Dubai’s course though, takes “fast” too far. I only briefly mentioned it in the post, but even if Jumeirah Beach Road is the most beautiful road in the world, it’s still just a straight line, which would be torment for me.

        I think back to some races (Chicago, actually, comes to mind) and I remember disliking the 2-3 mile straight shots. I like turns. I like breaking down my runs, and if there’s nothing but a straight line ahead of me, my mind will start playing games with me. Alas.

  9. glenn says:

    Straight stretches are the worst parts of races for me. I even avoid them in training. Seeing nothing but a road for miles and miles ahead of you is demoralizing. It’s almost like you’re not going anywhere because you’re not seeing anything new.

    This past fall, I ran the Bourbon Chase, a relay through central Kentucky. At the start of my first 5-mile leg, I noticed a water tower off in the distance and surmised that it would mark the end (or near the end) of my run. And even though it was always there, it didn’t bother me because I was running through horse farms and rolling hills in every direction. My point is – give me something to look at and I’ll tell you it was a great race – even if my finish time is less than stellar.

    • Dan says:

      So when you’re aiming for a big PR you’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, a flat, straight stretch allows you to stick to your target pace easily, but it wears on your mind. So what if the Dubai race were a 26.2-mile straight line with the Burj Khalifa at the finish? Given that you can see it from about 100 km away, you’d have your beacon. Or would that be murder?

      • glenn says:

        Seeing a monument in the distance for the entirety of a long race would be awful. I think the key is to find a course that is a compromise of both aspects – designed for fast(ish) times without sacrificing the aesthetics of the area in which you’re running.

        Chicago is a pretty good example of such a race. The course is a pancake, but I felt like I got a pretty good tour of the distinct neighborhoods of the city.

  10. MedalSlut says:

    A bit late to the party here, but I would be crying inside if I found myself at the start line of the Dubai marathon knowing what the course was. The Galveston 1/2 I ran in December was similarly boring, but I didn’t know that would be the case when I signed up (or started running for that matter). For a half, I guess I could tolerate that, but running on the same straight road for 26.2 miles?? No thank you.

    Big city marathons should definitely involve sightseeing. And variation. And hot firemen (Paris has raised my expectations).

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, I don’t know why this is bugging me so much. Grandma’s Marathon is 90% a straight line from one city to another, much like Boston. But even those have TURNS, even if they’re gradual or tiny, there’s a change. Two hairpin turns on a flat road? No thank you.

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