Run Fast or Go Home?

10.26.09: Well, maybe.


Last week, The New York Times ran a piece that has raised the ire of hundreds of runners across the country.

In it, the writer, Juliet Macur, explores the notion that slower runners—or “plodders” as they are called in the piece—are ruining the marathon experience for those who can run sub 4:30 (or some other arbitrary cutoff).

It is a very interesting piece and comments ran the gamut, from those furious at the notion that anyone beyond the Kenyans try to claim “elite” status, to those who agree with the idea that faster runners ought to earn different medals or even run different races than those who “plod” along running 12-minute miles.

I fall somewhere in the middle. While I can understand why some might feel the article’s theme is insulting to those who run slowly, I don’t really think it is. The basic notion is that what was once an athletic event reserved for true athletes, people who have been training their whole lives, has now become open to people who were sedentary just a few months before.

As someone who ran a semi-competitive marathon with a 3:48:53 (although, certainly still a “plodder” by elite standards), I do get frustrated that the marathon—an event that is a race, a competitive event—is full of people who view it more as something to check off their life’s to-do list. I know I am not the fastest and I accept that and if truly elite athletes ever wanted to kick me off their course by starting a marathon with a 3-hour qualifying time, I would welcome that challenge and not call them elitists. After all I recognize that I am a slow poke by their standards and what they achieve is far different than anything I ever will. I would see it as something to strive for, a goal on which to focus my energy.

This is why I find it so dismaying that so many people were put off or insulted by the Times piece. 26.2 miles is an impressive distance no matter how you cross the finish line, but the fact remains that walking it/slow running it is different than racing it. Not better or worse, just different.

I am frustrated by the politically correct (and now quite pervasive) notion that every participant in every sport should get a trophy. After all, that is not life. Competition is healthy and offers people the opportunity to compare against both themselves and others. For many of us, it is what drives us and is a major part of our lives. Without it, I would be sunk. There is something lost when all people who play get the same reward. I don’t even mind coming up short, either. I just want to play hard. Besides, how can we know how to improve ourselves if there are not standards to live up to?

I see the marathon as a competition, something that fuels goal setting and pushing oneself to the absolute limit. Others just want to finish. Both are admirable. But they are not the same thing.

There are countless 5ks and 10ks and even walking marathons. In Europe, the marathon cutoffs range from four hours to five. The idea that race directors would support seven-hour stragglers (some of whom may stop for lunch, according to the Times) would be absurd. So why is this ok in the United States?

Many readers cited the obesity epidemic and asked why elitists would want to stop anyone from running, but I don’t think the article was suggesting that. My takeaway was that each pursuit is valuable and important, but that they are different and perhaps should not be in the same race. Personally, I am not disparaging anyone who wants to lace up his or her Asics and move. But why not call a spade a spade? The fact is, I would say the same thing whether I was a back of the pack runner or an elite (please note: when I say “elite” I mean someone who runs sub-3). A race is an athletic event and ought to be regarded as such.

I know I am not going to win a marathon, but I also ran almost an hour faster than the current median for female finishers (which is roughly 4:43, more time than the 40 minutes that separated me from the woman who won my marathon), trained for years before running my first marathon and dedicated enormous amounts of energy, time and dedication to intensive, limit pushing (sometimes very painful) training over the past few months, so it does bother me (just a little bit) that some people who take it all less seriously are on the same course. After all, it is an athletic event, not a social event.

And while one could argue that time has nothing to do with how seriously a person takes running, I think, in many cases it does. Besides there is a simple solution: different races based on time.

What about one event for elite athletes who plan to run sub 3:10 or 3, another for semi-competitive runners that would have a 4:30 or 5-hour qualifying time and a third for people who plan just to finish? I would not even mind if all first-time marathoners had to run the third kind in order to qualify for either of the first two. I just think competitive runners ought to have more places to really stretch themselves than just Boston.

I realize that people in the bottom may complain about this notion, but the idea is not to be elitist but to allow for the greatest sense of competition among the races. After all, the very definition of a race according to is “a competition of speed, as in running or riding.” And as admirable as it is, is it really “competitive” to run a 6-hour marathon race?

I am not a race director, so maybe this solution is impossible, but maybe it is not. When races have 30,000 participants and shut out before the sub-four runners can even put their name in that seems unfair. I am not even suggesting that all marathons adopt these three standards (all with different medals), but perhaps the big city races should, like Boston, have more competitive qualifying times.

Ultimately, unless I have to maneuver around the slow people (which I do hate in 5 and 10ks), people’s times mean very little except for a few reasons:

1.) It is better for the health of all the runners to have more tiered events. Race officials and health workers would be able to more personally tailor their responses to the needs of runners on these different levels if events were tiered.

2.) More races with qualifying times would allow competitive runners to set new goals and meet them and allow less competitive runners the opportunity to eventually qualify for a higher-level event.

3.) Any question of elitism or snobbery would be put to rest. All runners/walkers would have their events and everyone could be happy.

4.) More races with qualifying times would mean that less people would be shut out. Truly fast athletes would never have to worry that their spot went to someone who planned to walk all 26.2 miles.

A marathon distance is 26.2 miles and it is an impressive feat no matter whether you do it in three hours or 10, but it takes lifelong dedication and passion (and a bit of natural talent) to truly run/race it and those competitors ought to have more opportunities than just Boston.

Ultimately it comes down to a difference in the way people view running as a sport. For some, it is just about getting out, getting fresh air and exercising. For others, it is about setting new and improved goals, competing hard and pushing their personal capability. Both are equally valid philosophies. But they do not necessarily belong in the same race.

Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.