Chances are, if you didn't run on a team in high school, you've never raced anyone while running. You can tell the difference in a photo. These guys, John Van Danacker (leading, on right) and Pat Billig (trailing, left) both finished this 5K in 17:23; they were both vying for the Minnesota state championship for men 55-59, so they've been racing each other for a while.
This rarely happens any more, because we've had an entire generation of people who expect awards for participation. Consider the Twin Cities Marathon. In 1982, there were 3511 finishers, with 504 of them finishing under 3 hours and 429 Minnesotans finishing under 3. Last year, there were 7144 finishers, 184 of them under 3 hours, 108 of which were from Minnesota. Breaking 3:00 was 8 times more common then! I think the main reason for this is that there is no incentive to do better - you get exactly the same reward for finishing in 6 hours as you do in 3, so why bother to run hard?
There's actually disincentives to run faster in the age class system. In the mid-1990's, I ran the Excelsior Firecracker 10K (one of the oldest races in Minnesota) one year and watched the age class runners as they finished behind me. They'd finish, then head to where the awards were, sitting in order. After talking with them, I found that they knew who they'd be racing beforehand and what order they'd finish, barring accidents. In fact, there were exactly three competitive runners in each age class - the same number as awards - because other fast runners in their age classes chose to do other races where they could win an award, rather than to finish 4th to one of these. They'd all conferred. If you checked the results 10 years later, it's the same names, they just were in different age classes. As long as they're getting awards, they don't quit.
I'm not immune to this. Billig, pictured above, ran a 5K under 17 minutes last year. I haven't run that fast this millennium and we're the same age (though I look much older - the unfairness of it all!) So I tend to run races where I know I don't have to race him, because it's pointless.
In my race report for the Trail Mix 50K of 2008, I mention choosing to ensure that I'd win the men's race by not going with Eve Rembleski when she caught me, because we weren't in the same race. There's something very wrong with this.
So, one thing we need are new incentives to run faster. What we have isn't working.
3 days ago