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Gordon Monson: Salt Lake's marathon has long landed in the gutter, not on the podium

Published February 19, 2012 12:17 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Salt Lake City has embarrassed itself long enough.

Twenty-six-point-two miles' worth.

It's allowed an annual road race — the Salt Lake City Marathon — to take its name and run it not just over its streets, but through the mud. And now that mud is splattered all over its name.

Hydrate, limber up and follow this marathon of a sentence, then:

An event that should be a crown jewel for the community, a source of great pride here, has long descended into a crooked, clumsy mess, thanks to the city's association with a race owner who doesn't pay his bills, who promises he will pay his bills but then comes up short, who blames others for him not paying his bills, leaving runners without prize money and vendors without money due to them, then, after his race director and most of said director's staff quits on account of questionable business practices, sells the whole event to a new outfit, a group that won't pay the old debts and is run by people to whom he's been connected in business for years.

Crossing that verbal finish line is somehow unsatisfying and unsettling.

Running a first-class marathon shouldn't be this dark and difficult. Especially in a community like this one, where there are thousands of enthusiastic runners eager to participate and test themselves not just against the iconic distance, but against what some of the great runners on the planet can do.

The problem with that last part is that agents for top-tier marathoners have long advised their athletes to stay away from the Salt Lake City Marathon, and some other races, because of the propensity on the part of the owner to not pay out the financial rewards promised.

That's ridiculous. It's shameful. It's pathetic.

Three pretty simple words for Chris Devine: Pay your bills.

In 2009, after The Salt Lake Tribune wrote an in-depth piece on Devine's business troubles, including the stiffing of vendors and runners in his races, he responded with a public forum letter that included the following:

"Due to improper management of racing businesses in other cities — circumstances that were beyond my control but for which I take full responsibility — we have sometimes failed to promptly pay vendors and runners. I will keep my commitments to past creditors. We are past these difficulties and are recommitting to Salt Lake City as our company's foremost priority. This year, all runners and vendors will be paid promptly."

It didn't work out that way. Some estimates of Devine's unpaid race debts exceed $150,000. Scott Kerr, SLC Marathon's director, resigned in October, along with much of his staff, telling The Tribune:

"I've poured my heart and soul into it to assure it was a success and to assure the safety of the participants. It is something that has been dear to me, but I reached a point of serious concern. It was important to me to feel everyone is treated fairly, whether they were my staff, the vendors or the runners. I gave it one more shot, hoping things would change — but it didn't."

Vendors and runners around the country have complained about Devine. He's been sued more than a dozen times in recent years, and the Palm Beach Post reported that in 2009, Divine's marathon business had been hit with a series of tax liens, totaling more than $1.1 million, by the IRS. Moreover, the Utah Sports Commission, which promotes sports events in the state, stopped working with Devine.

So, now, Devine supposedly has sold the Salt Lake City Marathon to U.S. Road Sports, a group owned by Peter Handy, who has been a director of Marathon Media Inc., a company owned by Devine.

Handy does not deny that role, nor that he and Devine have done business together in the past. But he said those dealings lasted from 1996 to 2003. He claimed that he and Devine have no current business ties, other than by way of the sale of marathons.

But Handy also said he would not honor the unpaid debts of past ownership.

City officials said earlier last week they were looking into the connections as they consider whether to issue a permit for the race, scheduled for April 21. They subsequently said on Thursday that if the race's new management meets a list of demands by Tuesday proving it has the organization to make the marathon happen, the race would be allowed to proceed. Otherwise, it could be postponed or canceled.

Maybe few around here care who owns the Salt Lake City Marathon or how it's managed. More should. Representatives for the city have said they have their concerns about the race's ownership, but they can't just deny a permit for the event based on the owners' business practices, particularly if the city has always gotten its share of money. Denial could be a legal and bureaucratic nightmare.

But this sordid tale has gone on for years here.

Red tape and red flags are everywhere.

God only knows if it will continue to carom down the same path.

Maybe the answer is for the city to put so many temporary roadblocks and requirements up that the effort for a permit isn't worth the trouble — until it can be done right.

Salt Lake City does have a brand here to protect. Its name has landed in the slime and gutter of this race, when it should be on the champion's podium. How valuable is that good name, could that name be, given the growth in popularity of marathons around the country? It's an extreme example, but New York City's marathon had 44,000 finishers in 2010. That's a lot of entry fees, a lot of boost to the local economy, a lot of goodwill shared.

Think about what the Salt Lake City Marathon could be, should be, if it were run legit — terrific location, challenging venue, beautiful scenery, fantastic community, vast participation, great destination, and impressive experience for everyone involved. That's what this event might be, a destination marathon where elite athletes and local and visiting runners come and stay — and cover the same ground and distance to test themselves and celebrate the achievement.

In the great pantheon of American marathons, Salt Lake City might never be Boston or New York or even St. George, but it still should be something north of what it's been best known for in the past: shady business, bad debt and broken promises.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.