Crossing the Line

This is a bit of an extension of a post/conversation on my Dad’s blog and also an offshoot of many threads and questions on the Runner World Forums.  Let me pose a question.  Would you sign up for a competitive volley ball league if you didn’t know if you could hit the ball over the net?  Would you sign up for a bowling league if you might not be able to pick up the lightest ball?  If you were illiterate would you join a book club?  Would you agree to go deep water scuba diving in 6 weeks with a friend at work even if you had never been and wouldn’t have time to get certified to dive?  I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to do all those things, but I would think the reasonable thing to do would be to practice them until you had some proficiency before you just jumped into competition.

OK, what the hell am I talking about?

Every weekend 10’s of thousand of people pay good money to run in 5k’s 10k’s half-marathons, and marathons.  For many of those people it will be their first “race.”  For some they have been preparing long and hard, diligently following schedules procured from books, websites, personal trainers, or friends.  They may have started running only a few months ago, but they know they have done the work and are excited to see the pay off.  They step to the line; they run their heart out and fall in love with running for the rest of their life.

Then there are those who didn’t follow a plan, or did some of a plan some weeks.  They missed lots of runs because it was too cold to run, too wet to run, or too nice a day to waste running.  They laid down their $30 and promised their friend they would do this half-marathon with them last fall and now the day has arrived and once 4 weeks ago they even managed an 8 mile run with just 2 walking breaks but that was before the holidays when shopping and parties got in the way and in the last few weeks they have only gotten in a few runs a week of 4-5 miles.  They will now proceed to take 4 hours to cover 13.1 miles and be handed a medal when they cross the finish line.  They hang the medal on their cubical wall and tell people, yeah I do marathons.

I know I’m supposed to be impressed by the huge numbers of people showing up at races every weekend.  I know it is suppose to be a good thing that so many people are “making an effort” to be healthy and to exercise.  But I’m not, and I’ll tell you why.  Despite the surge in popularity of road races Americans are fatter and unhealthier than ever, and I see plenty of them enjoying the post race food.  It is simply not impressive for a 30 year old man or woman with no medical problems to walk/run 10 minutes per mile for 3.1 miles.  I can not bring myself to celebrate it. Do you know how many calories you burn in 30 minutes of running at 6 mph?  About 250, or to put it another way a yogurt and a banana.  When the average American eats almost 4000 calories a day, how much impact do you think jogging 3-4 miles per day has on that kind of out of control calorie consumption?  Hell, running hard for an hour a day and you wouldn’t need that many calories.  If you were training at an Olympic level for the marathon at 100+ miles a week you might be getting close.

I also have to ask, why is it with so many more people running are the top times in most races getting slower?  Sure the elite field is as good as it has ever been but what about the next level of runner?  It would be one thing if the there was now the same number of sub 2:40 times in the NYC marathon as 25 years ago but a whole lot more slower people.  That would mean the same % of people still took running and racing seriously, while more and more people were running just to cover the distance.  But that is not what is happening, the number of people breaking 2:40 in the NYC marathon has dropped by a third over the last few decades while the number of people running it has grow three fold.  So the sport is losing its dedicated amateur runners and gaining more weekend warriors.  Maybe this only bothers me at all because of a quirk of road racing.  As far as I am aware  road racing is the only sport were the best in the world compete in the same event as people who may never have participated in the sport of running before. 

How is it possible that these guys… 

are competiting in the same sport as these guys… 

It would be like if we pulled this guy out of the stands…

to pitch against this guy… 

For me though it is not even so much a matter of ability or end result as it is of effort.  Good enough is never enough.  Yes, I run because I love to run, but also because it allows me to test the limits of my mental and physcial abilities in a way that nothing else I’ve found does.  I think it is my passion for the sport (and yes running is very much a sport) that won’t allow me to be celebrate the vast quantities of people doing it so half heartedly.

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  1. Not only is the amateur runner a dying breed, but they are getting completely lost in the “sea of mediocrity.” There are so many big races out there that cater to the true elites, and then treat everyone else like cattle. Problem is, running a marathon in the 2:20s, or 2:30s is not easy, and it would be nice to avoid the masses and circus of bigger events. Standing in the cold for 2 hours is no way to prepare for an all out marathon effort.

    That is why I love the handful of races..Chicago, New York to name a couple that recognize the dedicated amateur, that trains as hard as the professionals but just doesn’t quite have the genetic make up to run at the highest level.

    This is also why I usually hand pick smaller local races that have good competition. I get what I need, a competitive race, accurate course, and results, without having to deal with all the worthless “show” of big races. Big races don’t even feel like races, it’s more like a whole bunch of people just running at the same time.

    I too wonder if all this is good for our sport. You practically read my mind!

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  3. Hi Josh,
    I loved your article. Especially the picture comparisons. I totally agree with you .. to a point.
    I do feel that the recreational runners have a place at the big races. Yes – it is mostly a bunch of people running/walking at the same time. But if it wasn’t for the masses there wouldn’t be many big marathons. We had to end the Dutchess County Classic Marathon because we just can’t put on a marathon for 20 runners. I fear the same thing would happen to the big marathons if they only allowed “real” runners. I welcome the recreational runners/walkers if that is what it takes to put on a marathon that I can run competitively.
    Conni Grace – MHRRC

    1. It is too bad that the DCC faded away like it did. But I think partly it is because of the trend toward these huge marathons like the New York marathon. They have to turn people away, and a great race the DCC can’t field enough runners to hold the event, I mean who wouldn’t rather run through the beautiful upstate country side in September than throught he crowded streets of NYC? People just want to do the big marathons because it’s glamorous. People at work know I run and everytime the NY or Boston marathons are in the news people ask me if I’m running in them. When I explain I don’t usually do marathons they seem disappointed, like why do I run so much then.

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