A few days ago I was on the MarketWatch website, a site dedicated mainly to stocks and other financial matters. So as I was checking my progress toward overtaking Warren Buffet (*), I was surprised to find this headline on the main page:
The article pointed out that while the number of marathon finishers has essentially tripled from 143,000 in 1980 to 518,000 in 2011, the median finishing time has decreased by over 44 minutes (men’s from 3:32 to 4:17, women from 4:03 to 4:42). And it’s primarily the younger runners (44 and under) who post the slower times.
To me, this makes perfect sense. More people running means fewer elite runners by proportion. But some people in the running community are worried about this trend. Other troubling signs to them include no U.S. medal in the Olympic marathon since 2004, and the growing popularity of untimed events like Tough Mudder and Color Runs. Here are a few takes on the subject:
Ryan Lamppa, a 54-year-old competitive runner: “Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it’s good enough just to finish.”
From the Wall Street Journal online article: The Slowest Generation
“This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be of concern to us all,” Toni Reavis, veteran running commentator, in Dumbing Down, Slowing Down
And here’s this gem from Robert Johnson, a founder of LetsRun.com (also from the WSJ article):
“If you’re going to get just as much praise for doing a four-hour marathon as a three-hour, why bother killing yourself training? It’s hard to do well in a marathon if your idea of a long session is watching season four of ‘The Wire.'”
Oh, brother. Pass me a crying towel and a barf bucket. Fast. I might not make it to the end of this post. I’ll do my best by containing myself to just a few points.
First of all, there’s a difference between an award for participation and one for accomplishing something. At a marathon, you get a T-shirt for showing up (participation). Finish by the cutoff time (the accomplishment) and you get a medal, and rightly so. By completing a marathon, you are performing a feat of physical and mental endurance that 99% of Americans will never achieve, or even try for. That’s worth a medal. And winners get special treatment – cash, trophies, shoes, or other prizes and the honor of standing on the stage, so it’s hardly “akin to communism” as another Chicken Little recently commented.
As for American competitiveness? We haven’t won an Olympic medal in the marathon since 2004? Well, in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, the U.S. led the world in gold medals and total medal count, including many in track and field. But no marathon medal. Gosh, that was a wasted eight years!
Finally, and what to me is most important, obsessing on “competition” and who is training hard and who isn’t, is a colossal waste of time and energy. Only a few runners in any marathon, or any race, have a chance to win. They know who they are, and they can take care of themselves. Why should it matter to Toni Reavis, Robert Johnson, or anyone, how hard other runners have trained, or where they finish, or even why they show up?
I’m reminded of a thread I read years ago on an Aikido discussion board. Someone was concerned that one of his classmates passed a rank advancement test, even though, to this student, he didn’t seem to perform the techniques well enough. The best response was a single-line classic:
“Why are you worried about anyone else’s performance? Just train.”
So to all of you fearmongers out there: Our young runners will be fine. Just run!
(*) Let’s just say if investing was like running, Buffet is Usain Bolt, and I am…well, me.