Choosing a 5K from a chunk of options

Tomorrow, I turn 55. In observation, I’ve decided that my year in fitness should revolve around the number 55. Since I dabble in running, I’ve decided one of my goals will be to run 11 5Ks, the logic being: 11 races x 5K = 55(K). But which 11 5Ks to do? It was a decision that became more difficult as I looked around and discovered just how many 5Ks there are.

A lot. A whole lot.

“Back in the 1980s, it was 10Ks,” says Raleigh-based race organizer Butch Robertson. “That was the magic distance.” That, says the head of NC Races, began to change when organizations that wanted to hold a fundraiser run discovered how much easier it was to hold a 5K: not as much course to map, not as many volunteers to recruit, not as many police to hire, not as many porta potties to haul in … . The result, a lot more 5Ks to choose from today.

A whole lot.

With four or five 5Ks a weekend during nice weather, how do you choose which to do? And how does a run manage to survive?

Robertson, who guesses he’s managed more than 500 races since his first in 1978, says a lot of non-profits looking for a fundraiser think immediately of a 5K. After an initial conversation with Robertson, the sticker shock prompts some to move on to Plan B.

“With no sponsors, they’ll need a minimum of 500 runners to break even,” Robertson says. That’s assuming a typical race fee of $25 per runner to cover a plethora of expenses ranging from race brochures to T-shirts to refreshments to those invaluable porta potties to city permits to police. And that’s just for starters.

Coming up with 500 runners for a first-time 5K can be a tall challenge, Robertson says. For instance, he frequently gets calls from school groups eager for a healthy fundraising alternative to selling vats of cookie dough. Problem is, with so many 5Ks that break-even 500 will likely have to come entirely from the school: from parents, teachers, students.

“The question I always ask is what’s it gonna take to get me in the car and drive 30 miles to a race?” says Robertson. Unless there’s a personal connection to the cause, that likely won’t happen.

That, he says, is why a race such as the Komen Race for the Cure does so well.

“I met with the Komen people for the initial Race for the Cure and this one woman told me, ‘There are two kinds of women: Women with breast cancer and women who are scared they’re going to get breast cancer. And every woman has at least one man in her life: a brother, a father, a husband, a boyfriend. It touches everybody.”

In addition to a worthy cause, then, what’s a good hook for a race?

“A unique location,” Robertson said. “We just did a race at the beach, people got to run over the bridge from Morehead City to Atlantic Beach. The people loved it.”

I thought of one of the few races I could remember from my first running career, in the early 1980s. It was a 5K that ended inside Denver’s old Mile High Stadium, where the Broncos used to play. Granted, the stands were empty, but there was still something about finishing in an pro sports arena that held more than 76,000 people, a space where I’d watched the Broncos overcome years of ineptness to defeat the Raiders in the 1977 AFC championship game. Achievement by association, perhaps?

So this year, in addition to cause races I’ll add some unusual venues to my 5K mix, starting this Sunday with the Blue Points 5K on the Runway at PTI — which takes place on a 9,000-foot runway at the Triad’s PTI airport. (Robertson told me that RDU officials approached him about a race a few years ago. When Robertson suggested doing it on a runway, they said fine, but that it would have to be after midnight, when there was no traffic. Even then, they said, if there was bad weather elsewhere and flights had to be diverted to RDU, there might be a plane or two to contend with. The race never came off.)

How this PTI race will work I’m not sure, but I’m curious to find out — and I’m hoping the distraction of running on a runway will get my mind off my lack of adequate training. For many, the pancake-flat race surface is a draw here as well.

Intriguing locations are part of while I’ll be doing this year’s four-race Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Blue Points 5K race series, of which the PTI race is a part. (Another draw: BCBSNC sponsors this blog and I get to race for free.) Other races in the series:

Blue Points 5K at the Ballpark
Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham
Saturday, July 2
Another chance at borrowed glory, sprinting (in my mind) across one of the classiest ballparks in the country.

Blue Points 5K at the Carolina Panthers Fan Fest
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Saturday, August 6
Not sure if we actually get onto the field with this one*, but as part of Panthers Fan Fest there’ll be plenty of Panther players on hand.

Blue Points 5K at the SAS Championship
Prestonwood Country Club, Cary
Saturday, October 1
I ran the inaugural race last year — it was my favorite race of 2010. Not because I won my age group (small field), not even because it was on a golf course, which was pretty cool. As we were finishing up the run we got to rub elbows with some of the greats of golf, including the game’s best-ever ambassador, Lee Trevino.

My race card for the year is filling, but if you know of a unique 5K, pass it along. I’m always looking for a good distraction.

* Two years ago my niece, who works in public relations for the Denver Broncos, took my daughter and I on a tour of the team’s new home, Invesco Field. When I started to run out on the pristine playing surface, she almost fainted. “We’re not allowed on the field,” she whispered.


For information on Saturday’s Blue Points 5K on the Runway at PTI, go here.
For information on the BCBSNC Blue Points 5K Race Series, go here.

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