The Running Mind of the Upstate Classic Race Director

by Josh Merlis

I took a few steps, and then essentially collapsed beside a picnic table. Crying. Bawling. We had done it. Marcus Catlin picked me up and shook my hand. I was in disbelief. It was a silly idea on one run in Pine Bush with Chris Chromczak - let's dodge the deer! Five months later, it was real.

Those words appear in the May 2012 issue of Albany Running Exchange’s “Road and Trail Talk Magazine”, recalling the emotion that overwhelmed me at the conclusion of directing my first race in April 2003. That paragraph ultimately ends with, “Little did I know that that day would change everything.”

Most people don’t run. Period. Of those who do run, there are those who race and those who do not. A race isn’t necessary to run as hard as you can, but only at a race are you publicly putting yourself out there, quite literally, in the form of your name in results - a permanent record of your fitness capability on that day. And it is on those days that we truly feel alive.

It’s been sixteen days since the inaugural edition of the Upstate Classic. The race was conceived during the pandemic, making it particularly unique for us compared to our other longstanding annual events - and also quite unique in comparison for 2020, considering that we had over 1,000 participants cross the finish line. The race experience has been significantly and extensively modified to be structured per the guidelines and regulations from the CDC and New York State. Amidst these modifications, we are absolutely joyful at the number zero, which signifies the quantity of inquiries we have received from any town, county, or state health agency about the potential for spread of the coronavirus to have occurred at any of the 6 events held since June (Dodge the Deer, Froggy Five/Hard as Hell 13.1M, Thacher Park Trail Running Festival, Druthers Helderberg to Hudson, Hairy Gorilla 13.1M & Squirrelly 6M, Upstate Classic). These outdoor, extensively planned and controlled in-person events totaled over 1,800 finishers and were brought to life by over 200 volunteers. Not a single health agency has contacted us with cause to even consider our events as potentially being suspect in the spread of COVID-19.

ARE Event Productions has received more emails and snail mail - yes, actual mailed letters - of appreciation for the Upstate Classic than any other event we’ve held in our near 20 year history. It is beyond humbling - and it serves as the foundation, inspiration, and reinforcement that races can be life changing. It reminds us that races are essential to serve as the motivation for so many of us to commit months of our lives for a moment that rarely lasts more than a couple of hours - yet can completely change the course of who we are and what we prioritize.

I saw a headline yesterday concerning the prioritization of the COVID-19 vaccines, which are rapidly reaching the point of being approved for large scale use. A lot of the focus is on using the initial supplies for front-line health care workers and the infirm elderly population. The article then discussed who next to prioritize, and its answer included choosing members of the population who are obese (36%+ of American adults). Over the years, the Albany Running Exchange has seen numerous members lose over 100 pounds by walking, jogging, and eventually running, while the community around them helped give them a feeling of accountability - as well as the pure joy and sense of accomplishment through the process itself. An activity that begins begrudgingly and with a great deal of intimidation for so many of us (getting up to running for 1 full minute, months working towards running an entire mile without stopping, etc.) blossoms into a love and desire to run for the happiness, satisfaction, and wonder of engaging in the most primitive, life-sustaining activity of our prehistoric ancestors: movement. And regardless of one’s nascent raison d'etre as a runner, we all come to experience that innocence and freedom of whisking ourselves somewhere with the same level of technology and innovation that has existed since mankind came into existence: the human gallop. Running.

As our 2020 Druthers Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon approached its August 29 date (the rescheduled date from the spring due to the onset of the pandemic), we were working in parallel on bringing the Upstate Classic to life. We still didn’t have all the details sorted out and weren’t sure what it would ultimately look like, but the feedback after that August event made it clear that our 300+ participants found it safe and wanted more. A few dozen of the several hundred virtual participants also contacted us after seeing the video we posted online, commenting that they’d be interested in attending a future in-person event. A few explicitly indicated that they wished they had chosen to attend, after seeing firsthand in that video how we changed the experience to completely eliminate the type of crowding that is most risky right now. And so, by mid-September we finalized all the details and announced the creation of the Upstate Classic. Over 200 people signed up when we launched registration on September 23, with 500 more registrations by October 1. Eventually over 1,200 members of our community and the surrounding region shared a common goal that motivated us all to make the most of our training - for there was a race to run! On November 15, over 40 of our finishers crossed their first 5K finish line, more than 50 ran their first half marathon, and nearly 20 completed the first marathon of their lives, including Brian Platt, recording that major first at the age of 62, with his ecstatically proud family there to congratulate him at the finish.

The ARE Event Productions office has morphed substantially this year. There is certainly a great deal of sadness in thinking back on the year from an organizational standpoint. In early February, we held a meeting with roughly a dozen members of our office staff, timers, and primary event operations crew to thoroughly review our systems, procedures, and needs. Beyond the tangible improvements that we immediately put in place, more powerful was the invisible bond and excitement that was reinforced and expanded upon with our shared commitment to make our events better than they’ve ever been. And by “our events” we mean all of the races we are part of, which would have been 200 this year. By the first week of March, new staff apparel was ordered, we contracted to have one of our trucks fully wrapped (intending on doing the entire fleet soon thereafter) and bought a new van as well as more timing equipment. The van was scheduled to travel to North Carolina in late March to assist in the production of the All American Marathon and then head straight to Los Angeles to time and help manage a 25,000 person event for Nike. Instead, that van has been sitting in our parking lot, driven a total of 3 miles.

Since March 7, besides events that we own, 192 of our 194 events were canceled. The only 2 races that were still held in-person were the ADK 5K and the Literacy 5K, which (go figure) both happened to be on the same day in September. 192 races canceled. By early summer, our otherwise unused operational space in our warehouse found a symbiotic use for a friend’s burgeoning bicycle repair and sales business, and by late September (ultimately realizing that we’d have none of our fall contracted races occur, that Congress had not passed any further relief for small businesses since April, and that all other options were extinguished) I truly had no other viable choice than to lay off all but one of the full-time staff: Emily Chromczak, who has been managing the AREEP office and ZippyReg client management since 2015 and is now serving in a part-time capacity. Considering our bills/general overhead, this drastic move would be the only way to completely avoid bankruptcy, which would result in liquidating the company’s assets, which, put another way, would permanently end our ability to put on races. (We have a lot of equipment, supplies, etc. that make events possible.)

This whole process was very difficult because of the reality of needing to decide what to do in my own life. My wife, Michelle, was - and is - incredibly supportive, and thankfully she immediately found more work when the pandemic hit to sustain us as it became clear that for some indeterminable amount of time, I would receive virtually no compensation from AREEP, and furthermore we would need to determine to what extent we might have to cover the company overhead. Should I close up shop? Do something else? Cut our losses and get out? End it and get an “essential” job?

As life-as-we-know-it began to unravel at the start of spring, three people, in particular, reached out to me: Maureen Cox and Kathleen and Randy Goldberg.

Maureen Cox has been a staple of the Capital Region running scene for over a decade. And while her primary title for which people might recognize her is the director of the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon & Hannaford Half Marathon, she’s also a former president of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club and serves as a high-level coordinator and volunteer at probably more races than anyone in the region. (On top of countless other pursuits of giving back to non-running related organizations in our area.) She’s been part of the AREEP team for years, helped AREEP launch the Druthers race in 2019, and was even the impetus and organizer for our February team meeting before everything changed. And when everything did change, she said, “Whatever you need, I’m here.”

Kathleen and Randy Goldberg became my surrogate local parents, allowing me to bounce ideas off of them and also as two individuals who kept inspiring me to keep pushing forward. And with the same altruism of Maureen and many others, they kept reaffirming, “Set the plan in motion, and we are part of bringing it to life.”

And so while the AREEP office lost its weekly buzz of upwards of 8 to 10 weekly races during the busy season, and the staff that made it all possible, that hum of excitement was replaced by the presence of Matt and Steele’s Freewheel Bicycle Shop; 2 guys with a combined age of less than 50, very much reminding me of the excitement (and apprehension) I had when I was their age starting AREEP.

The reality of Pete Rowell, Kevin Becker, Paul Mueller, and Kim Donegan’s formal employment departure to ensure their own sustenance was traded by the sage generosity of time and expertise of Maureen, Kathleen, Randy and others who were always just a phone call or email away, eager to do what they could so that all of us could continue to find inspiration through events. And so with their help and that of Emily, who selflessly has said that she’s willing to bend in whatever way is necessary to ensure the long term survival of AREEP, that’s what we’ve done.

Yesterday, while taking a break from the minutiae of post virtual Turkey Trot ZippyReg admin, I noticed a picture that’s been in my office for years, hidden behind random items on a shelf. It’s of me finishing my first marathon on 11/24/2002 in Philadelphia. I extracted it from the wreckage, cleaned it, and hung it up on the wall for the first time. And with clear vividness, it was 18 years earlier, and I was there. And beyond the race, itself, I recalled the experience of the whole trip. Who I was with, what we did, and the incredibly positive feeling that comes with doing something for the first time.

A few hours later, I saw the picture above posted by Ned Abbott on Facebook. I was struck at the symbolism of what makes these items so worthwhile: they are physical reminders of us in those moments. Bibs are on us when we do something amazing. Those medals are earned when we take on a challenge - and accomplish it. And if you don’t wash your bibs or medals, then there’s a good chance that the sweat of those magical days is forever absorbed and present; a piece of your past self still there, reminding you of what you are capable of achieving.

One of the emails we received after the Upstate Classic was from a woman who has had a very difficult year. She has lost loved ones and had to permanently close her business. She wrote that she turned to marathon training to “shift my focus from the overwhelming sadness and grief I felt to something positive--a light at the end of the tunnel.” And she did it. She crossed the finish line at the Upstate Classic. In the same spirit of much of the feedback we received, the very existence of the event was the platform for upwards of 8 weeks of commitment to be the best version of herself. Countless hours of training and related decisions and re-prioritization to integrate an activity that is not “essential for life”, but, perhaps, is essential for happiness and fulfillment. And essential for a healthy life.

While I was reading the previously mentioned article about how over a third of our population is obese (with another third classified as “overweight”), I thought more about how for so many, running serves so many purposes, with improving health certainly as among the most important. Regardless of one’s size, because that surely does not paint the whole picture, simply by being a runner, you are healthier, no matter what the scale says. Amidst the horrors of the present day reality of a virus gripping the nation, improving one’s overall health has become a priority for many. Just imagine if our entire country started running 8.5 months ago when everything shut down. Just imagine if we, as a nation, prioritized the true joy that can come from running on a spring day when the flowers are in bloom, or a summer night, as the sun fully sets, or those first hints of autumn on a trail as you see the first leaves start to fall. 8.5 months to go from couch to 5K, and either stay there or go farther, or go faster. Because from front to back of the pack, we all feel that excitement of running a new personal best, and the reality is that it’s a lot easier to achieve new goals when just starting out - what a great perk of being a new runner! And that can last for years no matter how old you are when you start. Just imagine if races weren’t predominantly treated as though they were no different than a crowded indoor venue. Just imagine if all government leaders saw the value and lifestyle enhancements that races inspire, and worked with their local running organizations to ensure the proper infrastructure and operations to allow for safe racing to happen. Safe racing that is potentially even safer than how they continue to allow parks, paths, and hiking trails to remain open without any of the same density controls or management we are implementing at our events for the exact same activities.

No retail business has had to change the physical layout of their store. Items are still in the same place on shelves, aisles are still barely 6’ wide; and when there’s a limited quantity of products left, people do what they do, which certainly includes ignoring the one way arrows futilely dictating which direction to proceed down an aisle.

This simply does not happen at our races operating with our new procedures. For starters, everyone is pre-registered. We control the number of people, the space, when you start running, and who you are running near - and all of this occurs outdoors, with the best ventilation system that exists. Once you start running, you are constantly in a new place, every split second. Even on a day without wind, you are a moving creature, gliding on the surface of the earth at a speed faster than 95% of the population ever experiences without a wheel involved. And yes, you have a mask with you for the rare fleeting seconds when you might be within a few yards of another person, and you wear it because you care about life and you care about these events continuing to happen.

How great a world it would be, if everyone ran and cared about their health the way runners do. How exciting it would be for more people to experience the power of going through the sometimes frustrating but ultimately always rewarding and incomparable feeling of accomplishment that is only experienced when pushing your body beyond a limit you once thought you could never reach. How kinder and gentler we’d all be, and eager to earn the medals that forever enshrine us at our best, while also motivating us to be even better.

Upstate Classic - 5K Race Results - Click on picture

Upstate Classic - Half Marathon Results - Click on picture

Upstate Classic - Marathon Results - Click on picture

Click on picture for Podcast of Josh talking about his running, the formation of the Albany Running Exchange, Upstate Classic event, and his goals.

During a Pandemic All Systems go for Upstate Classic Road Race-  By Mike MacAdam, Daily Gazette

New Paltz runner makes most of rare in-person marathon, wins age group in Albany  Poughkeepsie Journal

Meet MHLC: Josh Merlis, President of ARE Event Productions
Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

Josh  Merlis: Strava Runner Profile

Josh Merlis: Strava Runner Profile

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