Portland Marathon and the Money: How much should a race director get paid?

This is the second of two posts about the finances of races, inspired by questions we’ve received from runners about the Portland Marathon. This post was written to help race participants understand what goes into putting on a race and how to value those efforts. Note: it was announced on September 13, 2017, that the Portland Marathon was awarded a permit for the 2017 race.

First of all, it’s generally none of our business what someone gets paid for doing their job … but when someone is at the head of a non-profit, or a corporation, there are community members or shareholders who do get a say. That voice is most often amplified by social pressure, or in the case of a publicly-held company, voting.

Speaking of social media though, it seems like any time the Portland Marathon adds anything to their facebook page, 80% of comments are asking about the race’s permit (which is now locked in), looking for the new course, or inquiring about refunds. All these questions? Valid. A race ignoring them over and over again on their social media page? Rude. If they won’t even respond to their customers, how do they expect to keep people from making assumptions?

The following is simply my opinion. And I’ll be the first to say that my opinion, by itself, really has no bearing … but I won’t be making any sort of donation to the Portland Marathon in the form of a race registration. And if enough runners and walkers think it’s not acceptable for the race director of a non-profit race in “The people’s republic of Portland” to take home a six-figure salary for putting on one event, maybe there will be changes in what is designated as “our fine city’s marathon.”

A little background may be helpful: The Portland Marathon was started in 1972 by the non-profit ORRC, and then the Portland Marathon was purchased from the club by current Race Director Les Smith, who grew the event to attract many more runners, moved the course to downtown Portland, and elevated the race’s reputation to be internationally known. Les, who had been president of ORRC, stepped down from that role after he took on the Marathon full time. Les took the race from a small-time event to a big city run, at a time when running became overwhelmingly popular and there were fewer options for participants to pin on a race bib. Just put yourself in the same shoes for a minute: how would you feel if you grew something from the ground up over decades and then all of a sudden – after doing things pretty much the same way each year – you were being scrutinized and even vilified because you were good at it?

You can actually download a book about the history of the Portland Marathon, written by Smith’s late wife, Nadine Wooley (start on page 34 to read specifically about Portland). Going the Distance showcases the race’s growth and has some great photos and bits of trivia, like the fact that initially, like all ORRC races, the race directors for Portland were volunteers. I find it interesting that the book doesn’t state the year in which Smith started paying himself – or how much, but it does state that he decided that offering prize money would inflate the race’s budget too much. The book does go into detail about the non-profits and local causes that were supported from the race in the 1980’s, and it’s quite an extensive list.

Recently, it was made public knowledge that Smith takes home a six-figure paycheck from the event, and that riled runners. The primary point made was that if the race itself was a non-profit, and race registration fees were so high, the race director (who is also a partner at a Portland law firm) was simply greedy to take home so much money from the event. This, my friends, is a matter of opinion – no matter how off-putting it may be. But another point to consider is how the event went from an all-volunteer race to a race still primarily organized by volunteers, with just a few people making a very high salary for their contributions.

We here at Run Oregon try hard to be fair and give people the benefit of the doubt. When we publicly shared the mishandling of money by Double Dog Dare U Events, we got a number of nasty emails from people wondering how we dared to sully the organization’s good name. When we then ran DDDU’s statement from owner Pattric Langley admitting to the actions, the reaction was shocked silence. A few years ago, when Dean Reinke tried to put on a race here, we tried to interview him and got the runaround, and sure enough, he held his race and then left town without paying local vendors. Trust me, it’s more fun to talk about the fun aspects of running and racing than it is to warn our readers away from certain races. But when something is this much of a sore spot, we want to share our thoughts and invite you to try and see both sides of the situation.

As with the recent lawsuit brought against the Vancouver USA Marathon, we’re going to wait and see what the legal outcome is regarding the Portland Marathon’s financial situation. They may find that everything is above board and nothing illegal happened, or they will be tasked with rectifying their actions. Either way, you still are entitled to your own opinion and choosing exactly where you spend your registration money. Choose wisely, my friends.

About Kelly Barten (1152 Articles)
I started the Run Oregon blog in February 2007, because I felt like running in Oregon and SW Washington deserved more positive coverage. I also wanted to level the playing field so that small, non-profit races could compete with big events; and to support LOCAL race organizers. I'm a Creighton Bluejay (undergrad) and an Oregon Duck (Sports Marketing MBA), and I live in Tigard with my husband and two kids. My "real job" is working for an incredibly awesome math textbook company doing marketing and production.
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