By Phil Stewart
I first encountered the Road Runners Club of America in 1967 through the D.C. Road Runners Club (DCRRC). I was a senior in high school, just a year out from having discovered the joys of long distance running (2 miles at that point) by earning a spot in my high school cross country team. I am not sure if it was through my coach or perhaps a notice in a community calendar somewhere that I learned about the "12th Street YMCA 5 Mile" held in November of that year. With my newly-acquired driver's license (and surely striking fear into my parents' hearts), I drove across town to the event and ran with a band of 60-70 mostly off-beat distance running types on streets with no traffic control. I was hooked. At that time the DCRRC hosted nearly weekly events in far flung places like Greenbelt, MD, Langley and Annandale, VA, which greatly expanded my knowledge of Metropolitan Washington, DC's geography. At each of these locations, the same friendly faces would show up week in and week out, and we would engage in our favorite activity that no one else cared much about. During these years Gar Williams and Jeff Darman served as presidents of the DCRRC, and I followed them into the RRCA, which, since its founding in 1958, had grown to a whopping 19 paid clubs by 1971.
Williams and Darman proved pivotal in the growth of the RRCA during the 1970s when the "first running boom," inspired by Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Jim Fixx and Dr. Kenneth Cooper, brought Americans off their couches and on to the roads. I attended my first RRCA Convention just prior to running my second Boston Marathon in 1975 and found a group of a dozen or so men guiding the organization in a donated room inside the Prudential Center in Boston where the fabled marathon finished at the time.
Williams, who had become the RRCA President, was a master of expanding communication about the RRCA -- starting the State Rep Program, revitalizing the organizations magazine, FootNotes, and promoting regional club newsletters. He also launched the organization's first programs including the "RRCA Personal Fitness" program (a precursor to phone apps that reward you for your training) and rejuvenated the "Age Group Meet of Miles." In his spare time, he authored the first "RRCA Handbook" on club and event organization. There were 60 member clubs when Williams turned the gavel over to Jeff Darman and Stu Brahs in 1976. Darman was the master politician battling the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU and the predecessor of USATF) over eligibility rules --- a number of which were incorporated into the 1978 Amateur Sports Act -- and securing the RRCA's position as the voice of the nation's grassroots running clubs. Some 33,000 runners had joined 150 RRCA clubs by the time Darman's term ended in 1979.
The decades of the 1980s and 1990s featured continued rapid growth for the RRCA. The first liability insurance program for clubs was developed by President Jerry Kokesh in 1979. The RRCA launched its Kids Running Curriculum in 1986, which was the predecessor of today's Kids Run the Nation program. By the 25th anniversary in 1983 there were 408 clubs and over 100,000 members. Annual club dues were 75 cents per member. In 1990 the National Office was created and former RRCA president Henley Gibble (Gabeau) was hired as the organization's first Executive Director.
Although the explosive growth in participants during the 1990s was among more casual and charity runners, the RRCA stepped in to support young up-and-coming talented American distance runners with the creation of the Road Scholars grant program in 1996 after USATF had dropped a similar program. A young University of Arkansas graduate named Deena Drossin was awarded one of the grants in the second year of the program's existence. Seven years later, under her married name of Deena Kastor, she helped launch the U.S. distance running renaissance of the 21st century with a bronze medal in the marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics and become the first (and still only) U.S. woman to run a sub 2:20:00 marathon. Still mindful of the needs of beginning runners, the organization created the RRCA Coaching Certification program in 1998, providing a path to certification for prospective coaches of aspiring runners of all abilities. Twenty years later, the program certifies 1,000 coaches annually in 32 locations around the U.S. with attendees in the courses coming from countries including India, South Korea, China, Canada, Dominica Republic, Mexico, and more.
After Gabeau's resignation as Executive Director in 2001, the organization endured a divisive and tumultuous four-year period, during which, a portion of the board joined with newly-hired Executive Director David Dobrzynski in an attempt to drive the organization away from its grassroots foundation toward a more commercial model which included the proposal to produce running shoes. As the finances tumbled, the member clubs splintered with a number of them forming a new organization called the "Association of American Running Clubs” that vowed to carry on the RRCA traditions they felt were being squandered by the RRCA leadership at that time. Fortunately, cooler heads eventually prevailed within the RRCA and Dobrzynski and the RRCA parted ways in late spring 2003. By the end of 2004, the two organizations merged back together as the RRCA. Still the board remained fractious, which slowed the recovery from this difficult era.
In 2005, current Executive Director Jean Knaack was hired, following a period that had also featured two executive directors, one acting executive director and near bankruptcy over a four year period. Unfazed by the challenges of rebuilding the organization, and with a background in nonprofit management, Knaack told Road Race Management newsletter in 2005, "I am stepping in at the right time of the cycle."
When asked, during our sit-down interview in her office this February, which was over twelve years since our last interview, how she coped with the turmoil within the RRCA in the early days, she replied, "it's like a race; you put your head down, push through, and do good work."
The first phase was wonky activities like revising the bylaws to protect the organization from ever having to endure these types of challenges again. Knaack described it as "putting Humpty Dumpty back together again." Many nonprofit principles of governance, which had been largely ignored or only loosely applied, had to be reinstated or implemented in the early days of her tenure. Knaack also note, that "with a mere $60,000 in the bank account, there was only one way to go, and that was up."
By 2009, the internal structure of the organization was set and Knaack could turn to the more pleasant and rewarding task of building programs and services for RRCA clubs and members as the organization passed through the 1,000 club mark and ended the year with 1,122 member clubs. Confidence in the organization had been restored and several individuals, along with member clubs and events, stepped up to make significant financial contributions to the RRCA that helped the organization progress rapidly with growing programs and services to benefit members.
In 2009, the RRCA started the Runner Friendly Community program, which recognizes towns and cities that are supportive of races and a provide runner-friendly infrastructure, and are the home-base for active running clubs. Today over 50 communities have earned this designation. Knaack notes the fact that Jacob Frey, a 2006 Road Scholars grant recipient, who is now the Mayor of Minneapolis, MN, which was named a Runner Friendly Community in 2017, is "a great mark of success for RRCA programs."
In 2012, in partnership with Road Race Management, the RRCA launched the first online Race Director Certification program designed to provide training for aspiring and current race directors with the goal of improving the quality of event management. Over 265 individuals both in the U.S. and abroad have been certified, with another 275 in progress towards their certification.
Two years later the RRCA was able to step in to continue a second program that USATF had stopped funding when Knaack said that the organization would take over funding and coordinating the RunPro Camp, and its companion website RunPro.com. RunPro provides a two-day seminar for immediate college graduates that were standout runners looking to explore life as a professional runner.
Looking ahead, Knaack feels that the RRCA model works well in today's changing running environment, which she states features a, "challenging model of corporatization -- hedge funds buying properties." As some of these corporate events have changed hands and faced falling numbers, Knaack asserts, "they didn't count on an event being successful, because it has a passionate person behind it, someone spending 40 hours a week of uncompensated time. You can't count that on a balance sheet if you are a hedge fund manager. Hedge funds thought of big profits. It didn't happen." She continues, "The races that have endured, such as the Credit Union Cherry Blossom and the Utica Boilermaker, the Peachtree Road Race, and others have solid community support. They are successful because they are locally owned and operated." These are the members the RRCA will continue to serve now and into the future through its programs and services.
Her goal as the RRCA moves past 60 years is to "be proactive about the things that are going on in the industry." Most recently, the RRCA took the lead, and with many hours of contractual negotiations and legal work over several months, rolled out the first blanket music licensing program for events in 2016. Other organizations in the industry have reacted by offering similar programs based on the initial legal work by the RRCA's leadership through extensive negotiations with the performing rights organizations.
When asked about the declining participation numbers of the last few years, Knaack sees it as "a typical market correction" for an industry that grew rapidly over a relatively short period of time.
As I wrap up our interview in her Arlington, VA office, I notice the walls are laden with RRCA accolades ranging from hats signed by Olympians, to proclamations from municipal officials of large cities and small towns. The couch is piled high with t-shirts to be given out at an upcoming RRCA function. As I walk down the hall to leave the office I see posters of past RRCA publications highlighting much of the history of our sport over the last half century. And as I head for my car, I realize that the RRCA is like your favorite running partner -- reliable, loyal and always there for you. Congratulations on 60 years.
Phil Stewart is the Editor and Publisher of Road Race Management newsletter and a member of the RRCA Hall of Fame. He served as president of the DC Road Runners Club and Vice President of the RRCA many, many years ago.