Marathon Elitism

In the extensive coverage surrounding the 40th running of the New York City marathon this past weekend, more than one piece questioned whether marathon races had lost their elite edge. An op-ed piece in the New York Times on Saturday bemoaned the change in coverage from the pure, rarefied competition between the elite runners to human-interest stories about less professional athletes who competed. Cameron Stracher, who wrote the piece, argued that the long lag in U.S. marathon champions was due, at least in significant part, to this shift in coverage and "narrative," which lessened the public's excitement and inspiration to reach for the top levels in the sport.

"As the running boom matured," Stracher wrote, "the story line shifted from the race itself to the race as 'event.' ... The marathon may be an event, but at its heart it is a race--a competition among highly trained athletes."

A similar theme ran through an article that ran a few days earlier, under the title "Plodders Have a Place, But Is It in a Marathon?" A number of elite runners are apparently irritated at the slow runners and runner/walkers who, they believe, have watered down the significance of running, or finishing, a marathon. "It used to be that running a marathon was worth something," the cross-country coach at the college of New Rochelle was quoted as saying. "There used to be a pride in saying you ran a marathon, but not anymore."

On the other hand, marathon organizers argue that the increasing participation levels and appeal of marathons, driven by those amateur runners, is what's kept the sport healthy and alive.

Ah, the dilemma of exclusiveness.

If I'm vaguely amused by the complaints, it's because they mirror so closely a debate that's raged for decades--sometimes unwittingly--in the pilot community. In the very early days, flying an airplane really did take an excessive level of both risk-taking and talent. So to be a pilot was to be part of a very exclusive club. You suffered greatly to get there, but then you got to wear your wings with immense pride.

It's still a hefty effort to get a pilot's license, but the difficulty has decreased significantly over time. First came electrical systems and more reliable engines. Then came the advent of the tricycle gear airplane design, which made takeoffs and landings far easier and safer than they were with the old, skittish tail wheel designs. But the advent of the nose wheel airplane also prompted grumbling among the "old" set about how now anybody could be a pilot.

The club was becoming less exclusive. On the other hand, it was also becoming a booming industry. The explosion of general aviation in the 1950s and 1960s was due in no small part to the fact that so many more people felt capable of becoming part of it. Industry advocates have long dreamed of creating airplanes and systems safe and easy enough that every person in America could become a pilot and have access to a small airplane, because it would transform both the size of the industry, and the size of the support it receives. One would think that pilots, who depend on that support, would echo this sentiment. But even today, there's resistance among a lot of pilots at the thought of flying becoming, well ... pedestrian. After all, if everyone can do something, it's not such a point of pride that I can.

But I would caution marathon elitists to be careful what they wish for. Familiarity is critical to engagement, engagement is critical to audience, and audience is critical to sponsorship and publicity. Stracher argues that stories of great Yankee baseball rivalries, focused only on the playing field, is what inspires people to want to play ball. I disagree. I think the fact that people do play ball, in sandlots and schoolyards and on the streets of New York, is why there is such an audience for watching the best of the best battle it out.

For years, the sponsors of air racing--the fastest sport on earth, where pilots fly almost 500 miles an hour only 40 feet off the ground, in 90-degree bank angles--have struggled to figure out why they can't get more than a tiny audience to watch. Why is it that NASCAR races, which have many of the same elements, but less speed and risk, are so much more popular? Answer: because almost everybody owns a car. Hardly anyone (less than 0.1% of the population) owns an airplane. Millions of people can imagine themselves zooming around a NASCAR track. Very few can identify with a race pilot's world.

By the same token--as more and more people have taken up running and long-distance running, more people can imagine themselves sprinting across that finish line and can identify with the pains, injuries, and disappointments of a marathon champion. That there are now many more wannabes is actually a good thing, in terms of the long-term survival and health of the running and marathon industry.

But there's also something else at play, which Stracher alludes to when he notes how "the running boom matured." Everything is new only once. Back in the days of the barnstormers, when aviation itself was new and few people had been exposed to it, flying had a romantic appeal to the public that it will never have again. Pilots today are not held up as high as the heroes of old, when few people had even experienced flight.

Familiarity may bring engagement, but it also famously breeds contempt. Or at least a tempering of the initial romantic ideas and breathless excitement it once generated. Just like any human romance, if our interaction with something continues on long enough, it matures from a passionate love affair into something more like a marriage. Not that we can't still get weak in the knees from time to time, but movements, like relationships, change and mature. And that's okay, because maturation brings other benefits.

Back in the 1970s, running as a popular sport was a brand-new and exciting wave. Running shoes themselves were a a radical new concept. And those leading the charge inspired an entire nation to get off its duff and hit the streets. That's impressive. So now it's a mature sport, with many more participants. That's known as success. So, OK. Maybe that also means it's not quite as exclusive or exciting as it once was to run a marathon at all.

But running it in 2:09 is still an Olympic feat. Nothing takes away from that. And with six American men finishing in the top ten in Sunday's race, it's hard to argue that the changes in the sport and how we write about it have killed our competitiveness. Whatever the reason for the dearth of U.S. male champions between 1982 and Sunday's victory by American Meb Keflezighi, it's obviously more complex than that.

As for the complaints about the slower participants ... there's clearly some line that has to be drawn at the end, so the timers and volunteers who operate a marathon can go home. But I'd hesitate to make broad statements about what's going on at the back of the pack. The saying about being kind to strangers you meet, because you know not what burdens they carry, comes to mind.

I sat next to a man named Donald Arthur at a Bronx Rotary Club dinner last spring who had completed more than 30 marathons, en route to his goal of completing a marathon in every state. He'd only started participating in marathons recently, after a heart transplant gave him life and the ability to exercise again. He wasn't young, and even with his new heart, he couldn't run the 26 miles. Given his age and health, it was amazing he could finish a 26-mile course at all. But his zeal for the races was electric, even if he experienced them differently than the top competitors. For Donald, a marathon is a competition not against other humans, but against fate, death, and limits; a chance to prove and celebrate, over and over, that he is fully alive again.

I asked him what his favorite marathon was, and his eyes lit up like Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. "Oh, New York!" he exclaimed. "I mean, the one outside of Denver was so beautiful, to be in the midst of those hills and nature all around you like that. But New York has all those people, cheering you on! I wave at them, and they wave back, and it's like nothing else." Donald has time to wave, of course, because he's not trying to break a six-minute mile. Does Donald Arthur's participation diminish the New York Marathon? I don't think so. He's just experiencing and running a different race, against a different opponent, back there at the back of the pack.

A marathon is a race, to be sure. But is it an elite event only for "highly trained athletes?" I don't think that's written in the definition or rules anywhere. The original marathoner, after all, was a Greek soldier simply trying to deliver a message. And I'm not sure there's anything wrong with a marathon meaning different things to different people. It's almost inevitable, with 40,000 participants.

Perhaps the best way to view today's city marathons is as a more efficient version of the multiple levels in other sports: Little League, sandlot and stickball games, NCAA leagues, pick-up Saturday games, semi-pro leagues, farm teams and the Major Leagues all wrapped up into one. No wonder they're such a party. And for those who still yearn for something more rarefied; the excitement of watching only the best of the best compete without anyone else in the backfield, running still offers its own equivalent of the World Series. It's a small, highly exclusive club known as the Olympics.

(Photo: Martineric/Flickr)