"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Charged with being elitist

Time to clear the air.

One of the things that keeps cropping up is people claiming that, because I think there should be standards in sports - running in particular - that I'm being elitist. It comes up most often in discussions of marathons, most recently in my saying that the Boston Marathon qualifying standards are too easy, particularly for older women. I end up being the old coot who says that he had to break 2:50 to run Boston "back when it meant something" and that they used to shut the clocks off at marathons at 4:30. (Well, they did!)

If someone enters a marathon, lines up with the starters and runs the first 0.1 mile, then leaves the course, but comes back every day and does another 0.1, carefully documenting each segment, completing the course in 9 months, did they do a marathon? Should that be an official finish? I say no; I expect most people would say no. It is an accomplishment; not many people have run every day for 9 months (I've only done that twice in 35 years). Is it something that should be recognized as an achievement? I say that that depends upon the person; there may be someone for whom that would be remarkable, but overall, for the average person, it's not much to brag about.

So, I think everyone would agree that there must be some cut-off time. But what should it be? In ultramarathons, there are almost always cut-offs, if for no other reason than that it's impossible to get volunteers for an endless event. Because they are often held on trails and have varying difficulty, the cut-offs vary from race to race, but a common thread appears: the cut-off is usually about twice the course record. There are a few exceptions, like the H.U.R.T. 100, which is generally regarded as having a much harder cut-off than most. For a marathon, twice the course record is about 4:30, the way it used to be when I first started running.

The attempt to open the races to larger numbers by making the standards easier has had some negative effects. It's made the races much harder to get into, as they fill ridiculously early (Boston filled in a few hours). It's made them more expensive, as the races have had to accomodate the slower runners - my favorite example being the Twin Cities Marathon having a dance the evening after the race; if you can dance the evening after finishing a marathon, your finish will not impress me. Grandma's Marathon has started to see decreasing number of entrants, even as they add more events to attract more people, because, as I'm told over and over again: it's too expensive (especially getting a hotel room).

The added expense has made the races elitist. In ultramarathons it's especially evident: look at the numbers of docors and lawyers among the finishers. They are the ones who can afford the sport. I'd always looked at running as being the egalitarian sport, as it required very little equipment, but runners are being priced out of competition unless they're fast enough to get comp'ed (in 2009, I ran two free races and one half-price). Most people who finish a marathon finish only one in their life, so an expensive race is a once-in-a-lifetime event. For those, like me, who are used to racing themselves into shape, it's impractically expensive. By trying to make as much money as possible, races have become playgrounds for the rich; I'm not the one being elitist.

I'm not saying that there's no place for a 6 hour marathoner. Far from it! There's quite a few who read this blog that are in that range. There should be races that are open to anyone who just wants to try to finish. What I'm saying is that there should also be more races with harder qualifying standards, that are off the treadmill of "ever more entrants, ever more expensive." There have to be "open" races without qualifying times, or one can't have races that have qualifying times.

So what do I think the qualifying standards should be for age classes? I think 1.5 times the world record, for each category of age and gender might be a good standard. Here's the Boston qualifying times and what I recommend on the 1.5 rule.

35-39 Boston 3:15 Me 3:06
40-44 3:20, 3:13
45-49 3:30, 3:21
50-54 3:35, 3:30
55-60 3:45, 3:39
60-65 4:00, 3:54

35-39 3:45, 3:28
40-44 3:50, 3:40
45-49 4:00, 3:44
50-54 4:05, 3:45
55-60 4:15, 4:16
60-65 4:30, 4:30

The numbers for men are almost the same, but the times for women under 55 aren't. Don't be surprised if, watching the Boston marathon, it looks like there's a lot of women between 45 and 54. There will be.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Um ... this is your attempt to seem less elitist?

Or to recommend your patented SteveQ Brand of Elitism as somehow inherently superior to Brand X?

The weird riff on the Zeno's arrow paradox at the beginning is no more persuasive than ... well, the Zeno's Arrow paradox. Arrows don't stand still in mid-air; people don't run marathons one tenth of a mile at a time.

And isn't it elitist to argue that your brand of elitism is better than other brands? Making you doubly so?

I say fuck it. The next Boston Marathon should be available ONLY to those who have either never run a marathon before, or who never broke 5 hours.

I'll see your elitism and raise you one healthy does of anti-elitism.

(Make sure the anti-elitism doesn't come into contact with the elitism - the explosion would be cataclysmic.)

SteveQ said...

@G: If you think that's bad, you should see my argument that I don't find skinny women attractive.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Wait. I thought you loved skinny women?

Keith said...

So, let me see if I've grasped this. An expensive race is elitist. (read bad.)
Lowering qualifying times so fewer people can get into the race is not elitist. Maybe I need to go back and read that again. Or Kanadian logic isn't applying for some reason.

I've only recently begun to track the whole expensive races thing, so I admit I may not have a good handle on it. To some extent, what you think of as expensive is going to depend on your income, and your other expenses. But it sure seems to me, that the amounts people are complaining about don't seem that large in the great scheme of things. Oh yes, I understand there are often transportation costs to get there, lodging, food, and other expenses adding to the total. But I read a bleat on one blog complaining about a $50 race fee. Now, to me, $50 is not a lot of money for doing something I like. I figure, suck it up and pay. Or don't pay, that's your business. If you think it's too much, try putting on a race for less.

But, (and this isn't meant as a kertwang, though it's going to sound like it) many people have the feeling that the things they want to do ought to be cheaper than they are. America in particular has a disease that thinks things should always be getting cheaper, and that if someone else can afford it, you ought to be able to afford it as well. Frankly, I blame Walmart, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for this attitude. Many people have lost all sense of what things actually cost.

In many cases, there is a certain minimum cost to put on a race. The various permits cost the same if one person runs or a 1000. The other costs probably don't scale particularly well, but then, I've never organized a race, so I admit this is a bit theoretical on my part.

I think that the people that put on a race can set whatever qualifying times they like, and charge whatever fees they like. They can put in a requirement that everyone run in a pink top, or wear New Balance shoes, or be under 6 feet tall if they like. (after all, allowing tall people to race is elitist because we take longer strides.) It's their race. People can look at the entry info and make the decision to race or not to race. That's what a market economy is all about.

There is probably a place for races that require people to document a sub 3 hr marathon to be able to enter. And probably for races where your PB is OVER 4 hours, or 5 hours. All depends on the demographic you're trying to attract. If your race doesn't attract enough people to cover the costs then it isn't going to run again, or at least not many more times. If it does cover costs and achieve whatever the organizers had hoped for, regardless of "elitist" entry conditions, then it's a success. By those standards, Boston is an enormous success.

Most event organizers would love to have the problem that their event is too popular. The classic economic response to an event that is selling out, is to charge MORE. The price will ration a limited supply to whoever wants it most. That's the American way.

Matt said...

Qualifying times and the like push people. I'm not working towards a 3:10 marathon (or 2:55 for NYC) just because it's a round number (which it really isn't). If Boston were to tighten the qualifying times, people will just work harder to meet them. If Twin Cities lowered their cut-off from 6 hours to 5 hours, I'm sure the race would still fill up.

Now, for the part where I disagree with myself...

The 5+ hour runners subsidize the race for the 3 hour runners. Races need the slower runners with disposable income so that they can put on a race where others can run a 2:45. I just checked the results for Twin Cities, and someone who finished in 4:30 placed 5344 out of 8197 overall. Could they have put the race on with 5000 runners instead of 8000? Probably not unless the registration fee was $200 instead of $110.

Keith said...

Steve, per blogroll, I find this is the easiest way for me to keep track of blogs. Google reader pisses me off, and the blogger reader thing the same. Plus, if I've left a serious IMPORTANT long or funny comment on someone's blog, I'll drop back every now and then to see if anyone has followed up. So a few of them will be me, but I do have a small, but loyal band of followers.

RBR said...


Does this mean you won't run with me?


And for the record I am only over 6 hours in trail marathons. I am a 5+ hour marathon runner. Get it right.


RBR said...

SQ said: ...I don't find skinny women attractive.

I KNEW IT! Come to mama!

*shakes decidedly NOT skinny ass*

Come on. You missed me a little. :)