I recently heard about a New York Times story from a few years back about slower runners. The article, written by Juliet Macur, is entitled "Plodders Have a Place, but Is It in a Marathon?" This is one of those types of stories that goes viral every few months, and it apparently did so again recently. The gist of the piece is that the Times interviewed a bunch of whiny runners who feel that their New York City Marathon experience has somehow been ruined because of runners who take longer time to finish the course than they do. And they feel that their own marathon records are devalued by the "plodders."
Adrienne Wald, the women's cross-country coach in the University of Rochelle, said in the piece that "There used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, 'How low is the bar?" And Julia Given, 46, who finished the Baltimore Marathon in 4:04:52, (which isn't an elite time, by the way!) sniffed: “If you’re wearing a marathon T-shirt, that doesn’t mean much anymore,” Given said. "I always ask those people, ‘What was your time?’ If it’s six hours or more, I say, ‘Oh great, that’s fine, but you didn’t really run it.’”
These quotes examplify a small but real undercurrent in the running world of what legendary runner Frank Shorter calls "snobbery." He said you "never" hear such criticisms "from elite runners," noting that "Elite runners admire other people’s performance. I find it much better to welcome slow runners to the club than to vote them out."
At any rate, I fail to understand how the heck having slower runners in marathons (whose money helps fund the race, enable bigger prizes, etc.) devalues the faster runners' accomplishments? It is literally the same argument that homophobes make when they claim that allowing same-sex marriage somehow devalues their own marriages. Why in the world does it matter to you if Susie Slowpoke finishes the NYC Marathon in five or six hours (or, for that matter, if Susie Slowpoke wants to marry Pamela Plodder?) It smacks of insecurity to me.
There's also a certain cluelessness (or even outright hostility) towards slower runners that I've noticed in some of the races I have done. While the vast majority of the over 60 road races I have run in the past two years have been fantastic, and most fellow runners supportive, there have been some real doozies, like when the Staten Island Half Marathon, which I completed two weeks ago, ran out of water and Powergels.
And the crazy race I did yesterday,.which was almost comical in the reminder about how those of us slower runners sometimes get treated. I did the Frost on the Pumpkin 10K race, a small race in South River, NJ, with members of my running club. The good news is I had my best time ever for a 10K race, even though my hip was acting up. The not-so-good news is what happened before I crossed the finish line. There were so many things that went wrong, it was ridiculous
Believe it or not, I've never finished last in a road race until yesterday; there are usually a good number of people behind me in the bigger races. Even in the smallest races, there is usually some walker, or older person, behind me. So I've never had the sweeper vehicle (the car or bike that follows the end of a race, to check on people's safety) directly behind me before. But yesterday, I finished last (spoiler alert!) And there was an ambulance acting as the sweeper car. Only thing was, the ambulance driver, for whatever reason, decided to cut in front of me and leave me out there by my lonesome.
Maybe he was bored. I dunno. But this driver's actions appeared to cause a chain reaction. Cops and race marshals who were on the race course directing traffic left, because they understandably thought all the runners were done. That meant that one of the cars on the road when I was running nearly hit me.
It also meant that a poorly-marked course, with twists and turns, became even harder to navigate, and cost me (and many of my fellow club members) time. After the car mishap, and after running over a mile and not seeing a single human being on the course, I ended up calling the local police department to make sure I was still in the actual race. That's how isolated I was!
A cop came out a few minutes later to check on me and direct me on the right path. A mile or so later, another police officer directed me to turn right, only to find out, as I went down the hill, that I was supposed to turn right *after* that block! Oy.
Anyhow, I finally finished the race -- the nice thing was that there were a few people at the finish line who clapped and cheered for me. But the time clock was turned off! And while I know my 1:24:?? time was the best I've ever run for the race, I found out today that this might not count as a PR due to the clock not being on. What a fitting cap to a debacle of a race.
Look, I understand that race directors are under a lot of pressure. But the whole thing made me feel like a second-class citizen. Slow runners pay the same fees as everyone else, yet do not always get the same treatment or experience.
And I really think that every single race director should have to enter a race and finish in the back of the pack, to see that the experience isn't always so fun. It can be very lonely. If the race directors don't want to deal with slow runners, then have a time limit. But they won't do that in most races, as they will lose the money from the back of the pack runners.
If I had been a new runner, yesterday would have been my last race. As it is, I won't go back to this one next year. But really, there has to be a better way. Just think about what it would be like to run 10K and not even be able to get an official time at the end, because somebody turned off the clock. Or to worry that you were going to get hit by a car during a road race.
Look, I'm trying as much as I can to be a faster runner. I've been at this at two years, though, and I have zero natural ability or talent at it. Suggesting I simply run faster, or wait until I can so I can be assured that I am treated with common courtesy, as some have said, is a bit much. How about races treating all of the runners well? Or is that too much to ever hope for?
[Update: My running club friend Amy, who ran the race as well, discovered that there actually is a time listed for me: 1:24:24 (13:37 pace.) And that somebody else finished 11 minutes behind me! I feel terrible for that person; his race experience must have been even worse than mine!]