Wisdom From Running's Ringmaster, Creigh Kelley Tells It Like It is by Dave Hunter

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I was pleasantly surprised that David Hunter's feature this week was on one of my favorite people, Creigh Kelly. I spent years watching Creig announce a plethora of events, including the WDW events. But, I have also watched Creigh put in countless hours helping build the sport, behind the scenes. 

Creigh Kelly, is, as my Jesuit influenced educational background would attest, as one of the highest of tributes, " a man for others."  His experience in the sport, from an athlete, to coach/agent, to advisor, gives his words of wisdom even more clout. 

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Creigh Kelly, from Running USA 

Wisdom From Running's Ringmaster
Creigh Kelley Tells It Like It is


November 17, 2013

A significant number of American runners know Creigh Kelley - even if they aren't really aware they do.  When you are getting in your final stride-outs prior to the start of the Peachtree 10K Road Race or digging down deep for that final sprint to the finish of the Walt Disney World Marathon - or at any number of road races or marathons across the country - that upbeat voice exhorting you onward belongs to the man Runner's World Magazine recently honored as one of our sport's top three national announcers.

Creigh Kelley has played a major role in the evolution of American running and road racing for 40+ years. As an athlete, an entrepreneur, an agent, a race organizer, an announcer, an Dave_Hunter_Right_On_Track.pngemcee, Kelley has not only seen it all, he has also made pivotal contributions along the way which have helped to make the sport what it is today.

During his journey, the man Amby Burfoot cites as "one of the sport's best ambassadors" has gained untold knowledge about road racing and marathoning, its evolution, and those who are drawn to dance with the cruel mistress that is the irresistible 26 mile 385 yard race.  And that knowledge has cultivated within Kelley very definite opinions about every facet of our sport.  "Communication was very different in the late 70's and '80's from what it is today.  The amount of information that was available about the sport was very limited back then.  And because of that, many people misunderstood what was trying to be accomplished," reflects Kelley as he looks back on the era when naivety pervaded running and other amateur sports.   "The public was really sold on the idea that being an amateur was the highest calling.  I can remember feeling that - feeling that the notion was quite legitimate - because we were so unaware of how the sport really worked," Kelley notes as he recalls the noble - yet outdated and impractical - Olympic ideal which ultimately ceded to today's open racing environment.   "It was, in essence, the way we felt things should be," Kelley muses.

After tasting success as an accomplished schoolboy and collegiate middle distance runner and serving his country in Vietnam, the decorated Army Captain soon found himself in Colorado looking to lay down roots.  Quite unplanned, the young veteran struck up friendships and relationships with Jeff Galloway, Benji Durden, Jon Sinclair, and others who would ultimately spearhead the not-so-quiet revolt that led to open racing.  Along the way, the young businessman was operating a running store and representing athletes.  It was a clumsy and awkward process as the sport lurched along to find ways to allow dedicated athletes to be compensated for their performances.  Recalling the ingenuity employed, Kelley reminds of the ultimate objective, "We were finding ways to package money so that athletes would not be harmed."   Singled out by Hal Higdon as "one of the unsung heroes of the running revolution," Kelley soon thereafter witnessed the Cascade Run Off breakthrough that signaled the dawning of the age of open racing.  Bill Rodgers - another pioneer and one who benefitted greatly by this transition - succinctly captures Kelley's contribution: "Creigh is one of the individuals who helped professionalize the sport of running and allowed it to become better understood in the United States and around the world."

But the young leader knew more change was on the way.  "It was a guy's world," notes Kelley in describing road racing and marathoning in the late 70's and early 80's.  "But many of us saw that women would be entering into the sport in a big way.  Kathrine Switzer and Elizabeth Phillips figured out how to assemble the Avon Running Series.  These pioneer women were amazing.  I saw that and thought about the business side of the sport.  And I decided I was going to get into the game.  I decided I was going to represent some great women.  Before long, I added Anne Audain to my earlier representation of Jon Sinclair. And suddenly I was representing two of the best road racers in the country.  I had this tremendous, ill-gotten reputation because I just happened to get the right people." 

The Ringmaster beams as he reflects on what then emerged as a Golden Age of American running and racing.  "We figured out how to put together contracts with race organizers and we figured out other aspects of the sport.  And then it was exciting," an animated Kelley explains.  "And even though I was not a great athlete, I was then in that rarified air because of announcing, and representing these athletes."  Smiles Kelley, "Suddenly I was in the 'in' crowd.  Through that whole process, I had to find my way.  But it was a great time to be there."

While Kelley of course appreciates the pathway running has followed into the 21st century, he also has carefully-assembled opinions on the current state of the sport.  "It is the hottest topic on the planet," exclaims Kelley in referencing the participant explosion in the mega urban marathons.  "We have gone through several iterations of the running boom.  And we have created our own little nightmare - or we have created our own wonderful success.  It depends upon which prism you wish to look through."  As a national announcer, Kelley has not only witnessed the nationwide entrant boom, he has also observed the demographic change of those who make up these ever-growing fields.  "Because I put on events, I am thrilled that we have all these people entering into this activity because that means in theory our population is getting more fit," he explains.  "The truth is that if you look at a fitness profile of America, we are less fit today than we were 20 years ago.  Yet we have more people participating in what should be a lifestyle that improves one's life and one's health," Kelley observes paradoxically.  And in a joyless pronouncement, Kelley states, "I would say - conservatively - it is apparent that as many as 30 percent of today's entrants are not living healthy lifestyles."  It is an unwanted development for which the time-tested pioneer has an offered solution.  "My feeling is that we need to reconstruct our message.  We should reinvent how we run these events to inspire participants to strive for higher performance levels.  We have become a nation that is suffering under a troubling malaise.  The American way - the way we produced The Greatest Generation - didn't believe that mere finishing was winning," offers Kelley with sincere concern.  "We believed we had to work hard, stick to a plan, and get to some level of success.  It was OK to fail if you tried the best you could, if that was as good as it got.  But then you buckled in and tried again."

The Ringmaster sees the drift to specialized obstacle or frolic events as not so much a threat to the sport as a fad, a passing fancy.  Kelley sees the bubble runs, the color runs, the zombie runs as lighthearted "excuses to be social.  There are only so many times that you want to be covered in color or soaked from bubbles.  I see them as a passing trend," laughs Kelley.  With recognition that the future of running events will require both a competitive facet and an entertainment element, Kelley adds, "Our aim - as a generation of people with our hands still on the reins - probably should be trying to make our running events as entertaining as possible, without sacrificing the interest in competition."

As he looks ahead, Kelley sees further change on the way.  "Running will experience a leveling of the sheer number of events.  Cities are being stretched by the growing number of sporting events.  They lack the appetite for more events and are rapidly reaching a saturation point.  Events are starting to be recognized as more worthy than others if they provide real charitable dollars back into that community and support local businesses.  Events structured that way will ultimately have greater sustainability."

Kelley hopes that running events will find novel and effective ways to recapture a meaningful competitive element that actually inspires individual achievement - on a granular runner-by-runner basis.  "I hope race organizers will rethink how they can reward people for enhanced performance," Kelley frankly states.  "Social media can be a great vehicle for this - to measure improvement, to enhance fitness.  Event structure could be constructed to promote this."  Kelley envisions a runner's improved performance resulting in some form of recognition or even an entry fee discount for the following year's event - all tracked and measured via social media.  "I would like to see more runners inspired not to just get a finishers medallion, but to be inspired to be more competitive and to feel better about oneself," Kelley explains.  "I would like to see 'quality of performance' increasingly be a factor that encourages each entrant to train - not to just show up."

Approaching 70 but far from done, Creigh Kelley has already assembled an enviable legacy.  "The running movement has been fueled by the vision and generous spirit of a handful of people.  Creigh Kelley is one of them," observes Craig Masback, former American middle distance record holder and prior CEO of USATF.  With characteristic humility, Kelley is quick to temper the exuberant accolades others have for him.  Undeniably armed with much knowledge gained from his years of experience in the sport, Creigh Kelley - a self-styled philosopher - is careful to note that wisdom is distinctly different than knowledge.  "Wisdom is knowledge forged in the furnace of time," he instructs.  It should be remembered that Kelley's own observations have emerged from his cerebral blast furnaces after more than four decades of his immersion into the world of road racing and marathoning.  It is this recognition that allows one to appreciate that the kiln-fired pronouncements of Creigh Kelley are far more than mere knowledge. 

~Dave Hunter

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