A little over a month ago, I did an interview with a local runner who completed the 2009 Bank of America Chicago Marathon in 6:02:07 -- making hers the slowest time put up by a Charlottean at the Oct. 11 race. Driven by nothing more than her unique outlook on marathoning, it became one of the most popular Q&As I've published, with readers calling this Average Jane "remarkable," and "an inspiration."
Not long after that, the New York Times published a story that put the spotlight on "plodders," and noted that these slower runners were "driving some hard-core runners crazy."
I posted a link to this story on my Facebook profile, and was surprised when the first comment -- from an old newspaper buddy, Dave -- was: "anything slower than 10-min mile, get out..." The stream of feedback that followed was more along the lines of what I had expected it would be, with lots of runners supporting inclusiveness. One response, from a guy I run with often, read: "I have news for 99.999% of the marathon runners, there will always be someone finishing in front of you at the marathon. The increased participation should be cause for celebration in a country with such a serious obesity problem." (This comment was followed by much cheering from the peanut gallery.)
Now, Dave's got a sense of humor, so I wasn't sure whether he was just tossing a grenade into the room and running off down the hallway in the other direction. But a couple of weeks later, I posted a link to this column (from the Atlantic) that amounts to a big up-yours to marathon elitists. Dave chimed in again: "I'm sorry but if you can't do it at a reasonable pace, don't do it. you wouldn't want golfers playing 8 shots per tee or people on the basketball court who don't make any shots. people taking 6 hours and stuff is ridiculous... that is not running."
It was clear he was serious about this. So on Wednesday, after stumbling upon this blog about why slow runners are good for marathons, I decided it was time to ... well, toss a grenade into the room and run off down the hallway in the other direction.
I forwarded a link to said blog to Dave, and asked him to respond to the author's reasoning. Here's the essay Dave sent back to me:
The other day, I watched a video clip of a comedian named Cousin Sal, of the Jimmy Kimmel Show, trying to distract runners in the Los Angeles Marathon. He glued water bottles to a table, guided a remote control toy car in and out of the runners’ legs and bribed people to drop out for $200.David Nakamura, 39, a journalist, has been a moderate runner for 25 years and currently trains weekly with the Namban Rengo, a Tokyo-based international running club. He sticks with the B-level running group during interval workouts, "out of respect for the far faster runners in the A group."
My immediate reaction: Appalling, disgraceful, disrespectful to the sport!
But it wasn’t Cousin Sal who got me. It was the fact that virtually everyone in the clip was … walking. Hundreds of people passed by in some scenes, none breaking into even a slow jog. Big deal that one guy took the money and surrendered his bib. He was a good 30 pounds overweight, “running” in knee-length cargo shorts and wearing wire-rimmed aviator sunglasses. This dude wasn’t caving to the evil Cousin Sal. He had quit long before the race even began.
I have nothing against slow runners. Or walkers. Or crawlers. I encourage everyone to get out and start exercising at one’s own pace, then building up endurance and speed slowly. I have walked with beginning exercisers after finishing my own runs as a form of encouragement.
But a marathon? Two words: get out!
There is absolutely no point for anyone who can’t run under, say, 10 minutes per mile to enter a marathon. At that point you are making a mockery of the sport. Anyone who has ever competed seriously in athletics knows that it is not enough to be enthusiastic and willing to try. You have to devote time and effort, be disciplined and appreciate what it takes to become skilled enough to respect the spirit of the games.
Step on the football field with the lack of fitness and training as some of these slow runners and you’re going to get your head taken off. You would be entirely uncompetitive in basketball, baseball and soccer with that little skill. Yes, running is an individual sport, you against the road, but the same tenets apply: train, be serious, and if you can’t do it, don’t. You wouldn’t ski a black diamond slope if you had to inch down the trail. You wouldn’t surf the North Shore if you didn’t know how to stand up on the surf board. Sit it out and train harder for next time.
I appreciate that the open registration of road races has helped spur the running boom, but I don’t think that self-editing and running only those races in which you are reasonably competitive – against the course or yourself, if not the other runners – would hurt the charities for which money is raised or the overall interest in the sport. The true test of a runner, after all, is not finishing 26.2 miles with your family and friends and half of New York cheering for you. It’s running every day, every week, every month, every year, in bad weather, with no one around, even when your body hurts.
I have never run a marathon and I won’t unless I get serious enough to run a time that I can respect. Instead, I limit myself to shorter races – 5k, 10k, 10 miles. My father, a serious runner during the early boom in the 1970s and 80s – his marathon p.r. was 3:06 – used to say that during a road race the atmosphere changes when you start running under 8 minutes per mile. That’s when the chattering stops and all you can hear is people breathing. When I worked up to 7-minute mile pace for the 5- and 10-k races I would do as a teenager, I found he was right.
To me, that is the real test: if you can carry on a conversation while running – or pause to consider a bribe from Cousin Sal – you aren’t going fast enough.