In the first races I ran - in the 1970's - there was no award for second or third place, no age-classes, no awards for women and no T-shirts. Races had 50-200 runners and there were only a dozen races per year. It might seem odd that I miss those days, but there's been something lost due to the running boom and I've tried to rediscover the magic a few times.
Inclusivity precludes intimacy. In those early days, running was a fringe sport and there was a sense of camaraderie at races, where we misfits would congregate. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone knew who the winner of the race was, as he was the guy holding the trophy when you crossed the finish line; today, the awards are hours after the first runner finishes and the winners don't stick around for the first 80 year-olds to finish so they can pick up their award. In huge races, everyone who finishes fast enough for an award prefers to beat the traffic that's caused when the next 2000 people get in their cars to waiting for the awards. In huge races, you often don't know who you were racing against until you see the results.
In those early races, only about 10% of the runners were women. There was no point in having a separate award for the first woman, because there was never a real race; there'd be several minutes between women in a 10K (5K's were uncommon). Everyone, however knew who the first woman was; many guys were wary of being "chicked" and the men ahead of her would be cheering for her at the finish. The phrase "pretty good for a girl" was not meant to be derogatory. In small races, occasionally a woman would win overall and it was big news... it's about as common now and is still news.
As the number of women racing increased, it made sense to add an award for the first female finisher. The Boston Marathon had so many people trying to enter that they instituted qualifying times in (I think) 1970 and then had to create a separate slower qualifying time for women, attempting to be fair. It did not take long for older runners to point out that they, too, needed easier qualifying times... and the debacle of ever easier qualifiers began. I ran Boston in 1984 and had to run 2:50; today I'd need 3:30 and even for the same age I was in 1984, I'd only need 3:05. Yet, more people run, the records keep getting faster, so the qualifying times should be getting stricter, shouldn't they?
I remember Bruce Mortenson saying he was going to retire from racing when he was 41, because he was no longer winning, but getting awards for having lived longer than the guys who beat him, and that bothered him. He did keep racing until he was 50. I get that, now that I'm that age. One of the first age-class awards I got was when I was 16; I was embarassed because there were only two entrants in my age class and I beat the other guy by an hour.
One year, I noticed a guy who was tearing up the age-classes as a 55 year-old. He only entered the largest races, which had a 55-59 age class, because there were 3 guys 50-54 who could beat him or he'd run smaller races he knew those three guys wouldn't do. Age classes and awards stopped competition. Inevitably, there were exactly as many competitive runners in an age class as there were awards. They all knew the pecking order and chose their races accordingly; the faster guys went to the more prestigious races, the next guys picked out their own turf.
In the early 80's, Track and Field News, which made annual rankings of athletes, considered stopping the ranking of marathoners becuase none of them ever ran the same race. There was money in winning, so everyone did different races. The magazine ended up just listing best times, rather than ranking. Internet access to results has made this worse; it is easier for a runner to get a sponsor with two wins and 2 non-finishes (which don't show up) than two wins, a 19th and a 35th; it just looks like they don't race often, but always win. Locally, runners avoid direct competition to maximize awards as well and, because their best times will get compared, they only run the fastest, certified courses. Tactical racing and hilly race specialists have disappeared from the scene.
Small races (under 300 runners) tend to dwindle and disappear, unless they have a dedicated race director. Large races (over 2000 runners) tend to expand until they become unwieldly and then implode. For example, Gary Bjorklund had a running store in St. Paul and started a couple of races to boost business; he'd later tell me that the store lost money but the races subsidized it. The St. Patrick's Day 5 Mile was the first race of the year, it played on the large Irish population of the city and it went down the most famous street in town. The St. Paul Pioneer Press would publish the name and time of every finisher and that was the driving force of its expansion, as everyone wanted to see their name in print. The race grew to 2000 runners and parking and traffic became a problem. It grew to 5000 and the shuttle buses they'd started using to get people between start and finish became too expensive. They changed the course to out-and-back. Then they made it an 8K. Then they changed the date (and had to change the name). The ownership of the store changed twice. Then they added a 5K. It's been "improved" so much that this year fewer than 700 finished. Just when the newspaper stopped publishing the full results I don't remember - it's moot now that newspapers are dying out. The increase in entrants created new expenses, which created a demand for more "goodies" for entering, which required more corporate sponsors, which led to more outside demands on the race. As the number of entrants dwindled, the profits dwindled, so the entry fees went up. It's now an expensive race no one cares much about. In 1983, I ran 25:35 there and wasn't in the top 50 finishers; now that'd be about 4th place.
The larger the race, the more profit, so every race wants to grow. Unfortunately, the larger the race, the more it has to cater to non-competitive runers. One sees this in shirts and medals. The first local race to have a shirt was the Hopkins Raspberry Festival 5 Mile in 1975. By 1980, they were common, but you only got the shirt if you finished. By 1985, everyone got a shirt for entering, because the shirts were advertising. The advertising of corporate sponsors has become NASCAR-like; this year's Afton Trail Races shirt (my most recent acquisition) has 13 sponsor logos. Why are we paying to advertise these companies? I received a medal for finishing 5th in my age class at the Twin Cities Marathon one year and 10 years later, showed it to a friend who had just run that race as her first marathon. She showed me her medal. In that 10 years, they went from medals as awards to medals for mementos.
I get tired of never seeing anyone I know in races. In the 1980's I ran a series of small local races (won, btw), because I could see the same people each time and knew who I was racing. Within a few years, however, the few of us who were competing drifted away from it. I tried it again in a different series in the 1990's, but racing had changed enough by then that the old camaraderie was not there. I tried the MDRA Grand Prix, but it was all large races and I never even saw some of the people I was supposedly competing against. Then came trail races, where times meant nothing and so racing came to the fore again. Then it was ultras, which had only a small number of runners who all knew each other... until recently.
I'd like a do-over.
Sunday Night Musings
5 days ago