"Everyone’s a Winner”
Today I went for a ride with an old friend of mine – Jerry Lynch. Jerry is a sports psychologist who has worked with athletes in many different sports for decades. He is also an author (The Total Runner; Working Out, Working Within; Running Within; Tao Mentoring; The Tao of Fitness; TaoSport; and more). And he’s one hell of an athlete. In his 30s he ran sub-2:30 marathons and 31 minutes for 10k. Now at age 67 he is still trim and in great shape for both running and cycling.
As we rode we talked about what running was like 30 years ago. We agreed that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s age-group running was primarily a performance sport. It’s not as much like that now. Runners then were focused on running as fast as they could no matter what the distance was. Marathoners were not considered to be any more of an athlete than someone who focused on 5k and 10k races. Distance wasn’t the issue. Time was.
Sometime in the late ‘80s that attitude began to change. By then the general public was becoming much more aware of running. And while the sport was becoming more widely accepted by “normal” people they didn’t fully understand it. For example, if you were at a party back then and you made some comment about being a runner you’d likely be asked if you had ever “jogged” the Boston Marathon. That was about all a non-runner knew about running (“jogging”) in those days. Answering “no” would produce an uncomfortable pause in the conversation and some how seemed to give the impression that you weren’t a “real” runner. So many otherwise contented 10k speedsters decided they had to run a marathon and qualify for Boston to be taken seriously.
This attitude led to a change in the sport of running. Longer events such as the marathon came to imply something macho. Real runners ran the marathon. Others who weren’t really runners did 5k and 10k races. Soon the trend was that everyone who ran had simply to finish a marathon. The marathon changed because of this attitude. Back in the early ‘80s at age 40 you could run a 2:50 marathon, finish in 12th place in your age group and not qualify for Boston. Today a 2:50 time would easily win the age group and place in the top 10 overall in a marathon of similar size.
Overall, the times for age groupers have gotten slower, it seems. The slower age group times also reflect a changed attitude among those who run marathons. The sport for most age groupers has become a social activity rather than a performance challenge. Finishing times are not an issue any more; finishing is the whole thing. “Everyone is a winner,” permeates the sport.
Maybe that change is good. Focusing one’s life on race times probably isn’t very healthy. But then I’m not sure that walking a marathon establishes much either. I kind of liked it when a fast 5k was every bit as acceptable as a marathon finish.
I’m seeing the same change starting in triathlon. It used to be that a fast Olympic-distance race was considered quite an accomplishment. Now it pales by comparison with the Ironman. Ironman has become such a force in the sport that you aren’t considered a “real” triathlete unless you’ve done one, or, better yet, finished Ironman Hawaii. I seldom come across a triathlete any more who isn’t at least thinking about doing an Ironman in the not-too-distant future.
I also come across people who have never done a triathlon at any distance and are contemplating doing an Ironman as their first race. There’s no concern for how fast they might go. It’s just get to the finish line so they can hear those magic words, “You’re now an Ironman.” Then they can get a tattoo on the ankle, I guess.
Most “normal” people have no idea what it takes to even finish an Ironman. They see TV coverage and it looks so easy. Of course, the pros in any sport will make it look easy. It isn’t. Most people couldn’t sit in front of their televisions for 17 hours let alone swim, bike and run that long. Most are doomed to failure by starting at this distance. It would be better had they started with a sprint and five years later did an Ironman. But that’s too time-consuming for people today, it seems.
Our fascination with long-distance events concerns me. I don’t think it’s good for the future of any endurance sport when going slowly for a long time just so one can cross the finish line is held in higher regard than going very fast for a short distance. The person who starts out with an Ironman will likely have a very short triathlon career. Then what? Three-day adventure races? And after a couple of those what’s next?
Perhaps I’ve become an old curmudgeon who longs for the good, old days when distance wasn’t the key issue; speed was. Of course, there will always be athletes who strive to see how fast they can go at short distances. But they seem to be a slowly diminishing breed of endurance athlete. One good thing I see about this shift in attitude in sport is that it encourages more people to participate. Finishing is a lot less challenging than going fast.