The end of this week was dramatic, to say the least, for the Portland Marathon. First, stories broke that the race – scheduled to run in less than 5 months – didn’t have the approved permits from the Portland Police Bureau. Those stories included information that the Marathon was often late in paying their fees and had done so with a letter of protest. Some poorly-worded comments from the race director offended a number of people watching the story unfold, and the comments started flying on social media. Then, the race issued a statement that they were going to be working with PPB with course details to be released. (One should note that “working with” the Bureau isn’t the same as “getting permits from” the Bureau.)
Through this much of the timeline, many runners were still hoping that the race would be held. It’s known as the “Portland Marathon,” the marathon that represents our city and has been highlighted in Runner’s World. The race, originally put on by non-profit running club Oregon Road Runners Club, was held in various locations until former ORRC club president, Les Smith, purchased the event from the club and turned it into a huge, some would say national, event. And for many, many runners, the race is important. Maybe it’s the first one they ran, or the first one they ran after beating cancer. Or maybe they just enjoy that big-race feel of the event. Everyone has their reasons, and those reasons should be respected.
For some, the designation as Portland’s Marathon was bittersweet. The race itself is held during a time of year that is usually beautiful in Oregon, and the on-course volunteer support and finish-line treats have made the event one that is known for taking care of its runners. The event’s extended time limit made it possible for walkers to earn their finisher medal when many other events would have torn down the finish line hours before they arrived. But the race also received numerous complaints about the course: the out-and-back on NW Front Ave and the long slog along highway 30 were commonly referred to as “less than beautiful” in a city known for stately homes and verdant parks. And, it should be mentioned, there are many other amazing marathons and half marathons in the area taking place the same time of year that offer exciting courses and unique experiences, but have been overshadowed by the Portland Marathon.
There are some people who know that a huge portion of the work done for this race was done completely by volunteer Committee Members. Remember when the wave start was instituted? A volunteer not only came up with that idea, but put it into place. A volunteer with an engineering degree and military experience who put countless hours into the effort. And a volunteer who, like all volunteers, did it for no pay. Volunteers help organize the expo, the finish line, and the aid stations. Volunteers measured and marked the course, and helped make the race more walker-friendly, and organized thousands of other volunteers. Volunteers made this a supportive race that runners enjoyed running.
But when a volunteer finds out that their fearless leader is taking home a six-figure salary, is operating with less than the legally-required number of board members, and that the “non-profit” may be rife with conflicts of interest, that volunteer is often no longer interested in giving their time and talents. Many local race directors offer free entries or other goodies to their volunteers, or pay a volunteer’s nonprofit group or cause for the time. Contrast this to what happened a few years ago, when the Portland Marathon didn’t even want to let the (volunteer) Red Lizard Pace Team into the finish area to access post-race food and drink, despite those pacers providing a valuable service to the event itself. While some volunteer groups have been paid by the Portland Marathon, it is unclear if current volunteer committee members are. The increased registration prices – which people continue to pay, so you can’t argue with the economics – haven’t helped the situation of a race that’s billed itself as “The People’s Marathon.”
Race Director Smith, himself an attorney, hasn’t been quoted in the most recent news stories done by KGW and The Oregonian, but now that the Portland Marathon is being investigated by the Department of Justice, even more runners are weighing in. In addition to comments on the Run Oregon Facebook page, people are voicing their opinion on the Portland Marathon Facebook page. Quite a few are calling for Smith to step down as race director – but because the event is owned by Portland Marathon Inc., a 501(c)3 with a structure that puts him in the drivers seat, and there is no arm’s-length board, that’s not likely to happen. (See ** below for more on that.) Perhaps another race organizer will step up and offer to work with the City, the Portland Police Bureau, Portland Fire & Rescue, and even Travel Portland. It would be wonderful if the “Portland Marathon” lived up to its name and showed off the city better, worked with more local non-profits and businesses, and didn’t charge so much for registration.
It remains to be seen what will happen with Les Smith’s Portland Marathon. But we, as runners and walkers, choose with our registration dollars which events to support. Take a look at the Run Oregon/PNW Running Calendar and see the amazing diversity and quality of races that stretch across our corner of the country. Email a race director and offer your help with day-of-race volunteering or even to help them plan the event. We make up this running community, and it’s up to us to pick the route.
**When this editorial was first posted, it was incorrectly written that Smith owned the Portland Marathon. Reader John Collins provided the following correction and explanation. Thank you, John.
“The event is “owned” by 501 c 3 corporation Portland Marathon Inc., which is a 501 c 3 (federally) and a public-benefit corp. in Oregon and therefore can not have an individual owner in the legal sense. If the corporation were ever liquidated, the assets must be transferred to another 501 c 3. That said, he and Mamie are the ‘de facto’ owners as the board has an unlawful deficiency of members which gives them owner-like control.” – John Collins via facebook