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

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Running Has Lost (long rant)

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.


Jordan Hanlon said...

Good post Steve. Though my racing career is much shorter than yours I have definitely noticed a big commercialization of races from 5ks to ultras, sort of sad but on the bright side there are more people out running than ever before and I think that's a good thing.

I think a prime example of what you are talking about is the Fargo marathon, it has grown way too fast and has lost its charm. I don't think I'll be back there anytime soon.

Ross said...

How are you at the steeplechase? Triple-jump? A friend of mine is a ranked masters high jumper, and judging on his descriptions, the USTAF meets have some of the qualities that you are looking for.

pensive pumpkin said...

I started reading this like "oh, he's mad at the world for being on his lawn again" but ended up agreeing with you in a way. So apparently I will yell at people to get off your lawn now.

Obviously I don't know what all these things were like at all these times, but I think that the world in general has lost all of these things. It has lost a great deal of magic and replaced it with something altogether less interesting.

There was a time when humans lived in bands and competed against people we knew on a daily basis. There was a time when we all knew each other. I think this is what a lot of us are trying to replicate on the internet. Not that it is working for me.

I find myself just as much a virtual misanthrope as a physical one. Maybe this is why we get along.

I thought I'd be a person who races for medals, but I am not. It's like kids soccer where everyone gets a trophy. Cheap. I race for camaraderie. And I find it sorely lacking.

I liked this post.

Pam said...

I recently saw a 5k and 10k that advertised for finisher's medals and I was disgusted. A medal just for finishing a 5k?!? My sister pointed out that for some people this is a major accomplishment. Fine, I can see that, but do it for yourself, not for the medal. Just because ultras are longer, I still feel the same. Do we all really need trinkets to feel good about accomplishing a goal??

My crew and I had a bit of an ongoing joke this year at WS that finishing the race was ruining my ultra-signup score and that a DNF was better for the rankings. Of course, they knew I didn't care, but I think the online access to results may influence people to drop on a bad day.

SteveQ said...

One of the things I wanted to say but got lost on the way was: everyone wants to be treated as if they're special cases. But, if everyone's special, then no one is special.

Olga King said...

Where is the like button? And I don't even go back that long in a history...

Detroit Runner(Jeff) said...

I don't run for the medal but I do enjoy having it. Yes, it's a trinket but it also bring back memories or each race I do. I guess what I would suggest is that if you don't know anyone at a race, perhaps join a running club. While I don't belong, I see running from the same running club at many races. I also see people from the blog world at races frequently. In regards to sponsors - sorry but no sponsors today equals no races. We need sponsors in order to put together a race that the majority of people expect and there more that goes into a race than just a race medal(as you know). Timing companies, police costs, city permits, t-shirts, medals, etc, etc, etc. I do have to say that I've run large and small races and I enjoy aspects of both. Of course, I've only been running 3 years so I can't compare to how it used to be. I also agree with Pam's sister, a 5k is a big accomplishment for many people and I don't care if they walk 90% of it or their pace is 14/minute, if they are out there, I'm happy to see them there rather than costing me money other ways through healthcare problems. I don't need to be the fastest guy in my AG; frankly, I don't even care what everyone else races. I'm running to better my times or sometimes I'm there just to enjoy the race. Sorry kind of jumbled around. Great post. I love to hear the perspective.

PiccolaPineCone said...

I hear you Steve. Great post (though I will call you out for quoting the Incredibles without giving credit in your comment: "if everyone's special than nobody is").

As for me...
I don't want a finisher's medal.
I don't want a medal for my age category or even an overall win.
If I want a t-shirt, I'll go to Value Village.
If I want a yoghurt, apple, bagel or beer, I'll go to the grocery store.
All I want from race day is an ACCURATELY measured event, that starts ON TIME, with dependable timing that costs less than dinner for two. That's it. That's all.

And yes, get off my lawn.

Anonymous said...

Everyone should get a medal. How is it fair to treat someone differently, regardless of their running speed? Success must be distributed to all.

Carilyn said...

Great post, Steve! The ranking stuff is a little wonky and usually doesn't mean much - too much depends on the terrain, distance, etc. I hate big races personally, but I am happy to see a lot of people at least trying to do something different with their time. As you said, the fast people keep getting faster, so I don't think overall quality is suffering.

Richard said...

I am not a fan of main stream running at all so I am probably a little biased on this... couple of comments I would really like to agree with.

Pam said: "but do it for yourself, not for the medal." Could not agree more.. I was at the Dances with dirt 10K this past weekend and literally heard someone say on the way up the Ski Hill, we so have earned that medal at the finish line. WTF, it is a 10K.. just be happy you are out being active and can climb up a ski hill...

Steve: "One of the things I wanted to say but got lost on the way was: everyone wants to be treated as if they're special cases. But, if everyone's special, then no one is special."

Now I will go on to be a hypocrite, I think some of the 100 Mile Buckles are pretty cool.. :)

I am by no means one of the fast ones and many days I do not classify what I do as running, I do classify it as finding my limits and trying to push them.

Anonymous said...

I have been running since I was 12, never cared much for racing, I just like the feel of moving through the world on my feet. I can see why you race, as you are fast and can compete. I run a 20 minute 5k, so no point in going to a race, from my perspective. I did however race for a couple years because a friend convinced me to go to a 5k and I wanted to see if I could improve my initial time (first one was 22:30, last one 18:45). I threw away any medals I would "win", as they seemed meaningless. I started running ultras not for the competition, but because I love running in nature, and needed the boost of energy a race can give to cover 50 miles. I did keep a couple of those awards (a rock, and a tree stump), as running from sun up to sun down does seem like a decent accomplishment. I quit running ultras because they caused me quite a bit of physical pain, which took away the pleasure of running. About the only races I run now are the ones in towns I am traveling through. I ran the Red Rock Canyon half marathon this year because it was a great way to experience the desert, and later on today, at 6:00pm, I am running the Skinner Butte 10k in Eugene, OR. Other than that, I keep on running solo because it is something I love and it makes me feel like the luckiest person alive.

Anonymous said...

Nice points Steve.
There are a couple reasons why I don't race much anymore.. #1 the two competitive race goals I have (2:26ish marathon and making the U.S. team in the 100km) anything else.... well, why do I need to drop 50$ on a race, when I can go to that trail or road any time I want and run it? I do it all the time on the SHT. No ballyhoo, no shenanigans, just running without a purpose. #2 When I directed the Chippewa 50km race I made it a point to put no advertising on the back of the shirt. Plus, a nice organic cotton you can wear. That expensively over-priced micro-fiber crap is a joke! Go to the GoodWill. Just like shoes, I run over 5,400 miles a year in a few pairs of 35$ Nike Mayflys. Overpriced medals and awards made in plastic from China are just worthless. If people need that much confirmation in ego than they should not even bother racing. Use that money to donate back to the race mission, which is hopefully not felonious profiteering, but rather restoring trails, non-profit organizations, etc.. I tend to gravitate to the training styles and mindsets of the "smash-face" runners of two-three decades ago. Races should be competitive and it's great to see that times are still fast. When I run a race I plan to run fast. Last time I checked a race is a timed event, and competition should be part of the "fun factor". I have no sympathy for a bunch of whiny Oprah saga runners, or costumed bozos, or "little violins". If you don't want to race, than run the course the 364 days of the year when there is not one.


Karen said...

I agree with you on the medals thing. Personally, I'm more attached to the bib number than the shiny medal. It is covered in my dry sweat, often stained with Gatorade, and made it through the entire race by my side.

It also appears that my local running club would be perfect for you as it meets nearly all those qualifications. I love that our club is little and we each have our own group of competition at each race. We know who is going to win and notice when people get faster/slower. How do you feel about a relocation to northern coastal California? :)

Dale Jamieson said...

you've created a fair bit of discussion here, Steve.

I have to agree with you, like so many others. I would say that the vast majority of people are ego driven. Regrettably I find this nasty trait in myself and try hard to quell it.

To counter though, many of us are bombarded with sell, sell, sell to a far greater extent that you and your generation ever were. Our ego's are constantly being massaged - how can we help chasing perceived greatness? The whole thing is toxic, just like many things we come to find the older we get.

And the irony is, those who are great are simply humble human-beings. Anton K is this personified for example.

Jean said...

I have to agree with Jordan's comment about Fargo. I checked some numbers, and when I first ran the half up there, something like 2600 runners participated. A friend ran it this year, and there were nearly 5800. That's out of control.