About two weeks ago I received an e-mail from a younger runner, a member of one of the clubs in the district. He wanted to produce a race, using the proceeds from the event to finance a team trip to a cross-country meet. We discussed event insurance, linking up with the leadership of his club, and so forth. But the last sentence of his e-mail has been sitting uneasily in the back of my mind.
He was concerned about his club becoming less dynamic; which I took to mean as "getting old and set in their ways."
Just a word of warning: What follows in the next couple of paragraphs are my gut instincts, perhaps written with broad brush-strokes.
When I look at the RRCA organization at the macro level, I can see where the concerns might come from. With a few exceptions, most of the district representatives, regional directors, directors-at-large, and officers, are in the 30-to-50-year-old age group. That's probably a function of professional or chronological maturity; this demographic finally has stability in their life. They've finished having children, going to school, figuring out what job they want to work at for the next ten years...once you can stop worrying about those needs it's easier to think about the needs of others. They start to join fraternal organizations, perform volunteeer work, develop life-long hobbies. At the local level, the demographic spreads out a little more, perhaps three-to-five years either way, but not much more.
RRCA programs focus well on that particular demographic, because these are the folks who finally decide to get off the couch and get into an exercise routine of running (or walking, if they've incurred an injury which keeps them from running). We aim at the school-age child because of the obesity risks which are reinforced by budget cuts to physical education programs and after-school sports...an unintended victim of No Child Left Behind. We even support the immediate post-collegiate runner through the Road Scholars program.
But, how many 20-to-30 year-olds have fond memories of running while in middle school, high school, or college? The ones who ran competitively in high school or college but were not good enough to take up running at the next level might still be age-group studs in the local running community. The rest probably endured the "running as punishment" or "quarters until you puke" regimens of school sports coaches (a disservice; in my humble opinion, running is a privilege and even a joy). So, right off the bat we narrow the potential RRCA member population to the very young & the middle-aged.
Club leaders, program heads, and event directors more closely identify themselves with their particular area of expertise. If you disagree with me on this particular point, just try to take up a shortcoming you see at a particular event, a club's newsletter or their way of doing things with the person who's in charge. While there are many who claim a willingness to hear constructive criticism, the ones who won't feel personally offended by it are few.
I measure courses in my home area, and believe me, I feel very offended when someone tells me I don't know how to measure, or goes back behind my work to ensure I did things correctly.
So, what can we do to 'apply a little Grecian Formula;' decrease the average age of our club membership, increase the relevance of local running clubs to that missing demographic?
First - begin to use social media, such as web-based newsletters, web logs, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, as a parallel to the more traditional e-mail, snail mail, newspaper, and newsletter modes of communication. If you don't know how to use social media, find someone who is savvy and empower them to put the word out about what your club does.
Second - think of all the locations in your area where the desired demographic socializes. Get with the management of those venues and see about starting a weeknight or weekend run/social. It doesn't have to be a place where the 'grayer' club members would feel comfortable - remember, it's not about them. The distance or pace doesn't have to be blistering, either. In fact, a social-paced run is more likely to attract those folks who hated running because of their school/sports experience. Follow-up with pizza, sandwiches, beverages of all kinds (there are some folks who don't particularly care for alcohol...and some of your target demographic might not be drinkers); make it simple, make it fun.
Third - consider adding fun runs to your event listing, of varied distances, in varied locations. Keep it inexpensive - or free - for the runner; most of all, make it non-competitive...and keep it social. If you have pace leaders for your training groups, this would be the opportunity to have them take folks of varying ability levels out and let them enjoy running at their own pace. It might be a great opportunity to offload some of that excess swag from previous races; why not? Some people love free stuff...
Fourth - go where they are. That means the local college, the local workplace, the military base, the hospital. If you have an 'in' in there, take advantage. Doesn't have to be intramural or competitive. The objective is to provide a venue where the joy of running can flourish.
But - remember, the goal is to grow a community of runners, of life-long athletes. Let your imagination run. Ask the opinion of your younger members. Empower them to do something. Provide the resources they need. Step back and watch what happens. Your club might have growing pains, you might find your programs need to adapt to meet this new demographic. But it's a nice problem to have.